To what magic lamp, monkey’s paw, or wishing well does George Miller owe his career of improbable dream projects? On and off for decades, this Aussie writer-director and demolition derby-ist has wrangled bountiful resources in pursuit of offbeat glory, splurging top studio dollar on dubiously “family-friendly” menageries and increasingly elaborate dystopias. The pinnacle of his talent for turning a multiplex investment into a madman’s sandbox is, of course, his last movie, the staggering Mad Max: Fury Road, which was essentially a vision of what summer movies can be when made by real artists left to their own lunatic devices. What an impossible movie it was — and a tough act to follow, too.
So how has Miller followed his exhilarating epic of dirt, dust, fire, speed, and mayhem? As it turns out, with a change of pace. His new movie, Three Thousand Years of Longing, is at once vaster and more compact than his last one, trading an endless stretch of desert for a hotel room; a few days of action for a story that literally spans millennia; and a nonstop barrage of vehicular carnage for extended scenes of two characters in bathrobes, politely discussing the true nature of desire over tea and chickpea treats. And yet here, too, is an impossible movie — a strange and bewitching fairy tale for adults, unfashionable in its cerebral whimsy and mid-budget wizardry. You could say that the success of Fury Road paid for this more idiosyncratic fantasy, but that would be akin to arguing that Miller sold a unicorn to buy a leprechaun.
The aforementioned hotel is in Istanbul, where “narratologist” Alithea (Tilda Swinton) has flown for a convention of book fanatics devoted to the study of the ways humanity has always used stories to make sense of existence. This rational, reasonable academic is so used to playing the observer, to burying herself in the written exploits of others, that it takes her a while to accept that she’s stumbled into a fantastic yarn of her own. Its inciting incident is the moment when she unwittingly unleashes an imprisoned spirit, initially hulking like the giant genie of 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad and filling nearly every inch of her hotel room with his inflated-blimp physique. Thankfully, he’ll soon shrink down to the normal, more manageable proportions of Idris Elba.
The mythic shapeshifter is a djinn, and as he laments aloud, he’s been trapped in a bottle for centuries, tortured by loneliness, rage, and regret. Only by granting three wishes can he earn his freedom. But Alithea isn’t an easy sell on the idea. For one, she’s read enough to be wary of the tricks of wish-granters and to know that wishes have a way of ironically backfiring on the wisher. More seriously, Alithea has become so passively satisfied by her life of research that she can’t think of any deep desires the djinn could grant her. (Given, again, that he looks like Idris Elba, one might call that a lack of imagination.)
Miller adapted this heady fantasy from “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” a novella by A. S. Byatt. The British author broke up the conversation between human and immortal with the occasional graph of backstory, the djinn regaling Alithea — named Gillian in the original text — with anecdotes from the centuries of his eventful past. For Miller, these asides are an opportunity to play anthologist and create his own nesting doll of fables in the key of One Thousand and One Nights. The film, in other words, keeps leaping into miniature epics of flashback incidents, chronicling the djinn’s ill-fated encounters with Queen of Sheba, Suleiman the Magnificent, and a teenage bride more hungry for knowledge than love.
As Alithea might note, none of these stories within the story are marvels of narrative sophistication, and they prevent Three Thousand Years of Longing from ever picking up anything close to the momentum of Fury Road. But flavorfully archetypal digression is part of the charm of a film interested in the backbone of universal emotion that runs through generations of myth-making, linking the past to the present and one culture to another. Mostly, the vignette structure allows Miller and his cinematographer, John Seale, to escape the post-apocalyptic desert tones of the Mad Max movies and revel in a painterly opulence of reds and greens. Their dynamic visual storytelling pulls us along from orgy chambers to fiery battlefields, lingering on the occasional haunting image, like Elba dematerializing as he’s sucked into his purgatorial prison.
The movie is at its most unusually enchanting, however, in that hotel room, with two great actors making a meal of an odd predicament and a discussion that slowly gains philosophical and romantic dimensions. Miller makes great use of Elba’s dashing leading-man qualities, his smolder and intensity; it’s the benevolent flip side of how he deployed Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick — a comparable conflation of movie-star charisma and the uncanniness of a supernatural being.
Swinton, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as a sensible bookworm, amusingly unfazed by her unlikely circumstances, but also coming around gradually to the understanding that contentment and fulfillment are not the same things. Is there a little of Miller in this scholar of drama? “I like the geometrically patterned flowers best,” the character remarks towards the end of Byatt’s original story. “More than the ones that aim at realism, at looking real.” That could be a mission statement for how the director of The Road Warrior and Babe: Pig in the City has fabulously exaggerated our world — and for his preference for special effects that privilege the fanciful awe of a magic trick over “convincing” state-of-the-art illusion.
Three Thousand Years of Longing eventually veers in an unexpected direction, toward a melancholia and a certain sexiness and an ambivalence about the state of our technological now. The film’s questions about storytelling are really inquiries into the nature of humanity; it’s a topic Miller tackles through the gentle wisdom of a character whose eternal observation has left him with some affection for our kind, for “creatures of dust” defined by contradiction. In the djinn’s puzzled perspective lies the spirit of this imperfect but endearing oddity. And on his lamp, we’d plead for more impossible movies like it.