Say what you will about George Miller, the man leaves it all on the screen with each and every picture. Every film feels like he’s giving his all in every aspect, from production design to costumes to story, no matter if he’s portraying a talking pig, a dancing penguin, or a group of car-driving desert Viking marauders. In his newest film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, Miller seeks to portray the history of humanity’s obsession with stories through a simple fairy tale involving a lonely woman and a Djinn (that’s “Genie” for those who didn’t read the original Arabian Nights). The film that emerges is either a mess, a masterpiece, or a messy masterpiece – and I’m leaning toward the third option.
Narratologist Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is completely content with her single, solitary lifestyle. She travels around the globe giving speeches on the shared history of mythmaking. However, her view on mythology, storytelling, and her own lifestyle is called into question when a souvenir picked up on a trip to Istanbul – a small glass bottle – reveals that it holds a Djinn (Idris Elba), a powerful and ancient creature capable of granting three wishes. Alithea at first refuses – she’s perfectly happy, and nothing good ever comes from wishing for more. And so, in order to convince her to make her wishes and allow his freedom, the Djinn tells him the stories of his masters over the three thousand years he’s been on this Earth – stories of love, loss, lust, and beyond.
Like all George Miller stories, Longing tackles big themes in a small story, accompanied by the most sumptuous visuals you’ve ever seen. Longing is an examination of the power of storytelling, and how those stories tie into humanity’s eternal quest for that thing called love. There is not much to the story, in theory: for 75% of the film, it is simply the Djinn telling Alithea stories, in the hopes she will acquiesce and make her wishes. Yet their conflict runs deeper than just wishing; this is a story about giving yourself over wholeheartedly to love. Alithea’s refusal to wish stems from her refusal to trust in love again after a miscarriage and a messy divorce.
When she declares, “There’s no story about wishing that isn’t a cautionary tale,” this is a true statement, yet it is equally applicable to any romance. It is only through the Djinn’s power of story – through the raging passion that builds monuments and crafts the most beautiful tales in existence – that she can learn to give herself over to the sexy, sultry nature of love. It is a very grandiose narrative, both thematically and visually, and it may ultimately be too unwieldy for Miller, who has to rush his ending to tie things up neatly. Yet he keeps things on track as much as possible, and the fact it’s not a complete tonal mismatch is impressive in and of itself.
Mainly, however, this picture works not because the themes are well executed, but because there is no director in the world who understands visuals like Miller. Aided by John Seale’s cinematography and Margaret Sixel’s editing, Miller crafts a world unlike any seen before. It’s colorfully, visually sumptuous, from Biblical Ethiopia to 17th century Turkey, and it dazzles each and every sense – sight, sound, feel, even smell (metaphorically speaking).
Ever the visual trickster, the film is full of moments both honest and humorous at the same time. An image of the Djinn’s giant foot protruding from a doorway earns a laugh. Few scenes this year are as fascinating as the long journey of the Djinn’s bottle from the bottom of the Red Sea all the way to a slave girl’s foot. And in a tawdry, scandalous moment, the Djinn finds himself seemingly rescued from a fate worse than death because of an infantile emperor’s proclivity for buxom concubines. All of this is achieved in a remarkably believable fashion because Miller emphasizes the effects’ practicality, giving the film an otherworldly, yet entirely attainable feel – an old-school rear projection is far more captivating than bad CGI.
The filmmaking is elevated by the performances of its two leads, Swinton and Elba. While the performances of actors like Aamito Lagum’s Queen of Sheba and Ece Yüksel as tragic former master Gülten stand out amongst the fold, there is really very little acting beyond the conversing central duo. Elba is, as always, captivating as the Djinn; it is not an entirely well-constructed character, but the British actor’s voice is perfect for the film’s central narration (not to mention the way he delivers such sultry lines as “She was not beautiful. She was beauty itself”). Therefore, the heavy-lifting of the emotional arc belongs to Tilda Swinton – which is always a smart choice. Swinton makes all the right choices, feeling effortless as a warm, yet introverted woman closed off to the love she longs to feel. The day Tilda Swinton turns in a bad performance is the day I go on an extended hiatus from critiquing cinema.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is the type of massive swing cinema needs more of nowadays. It contains the melodrama of Fassbinder offset with the spectacle of DeMille. I’m not sure it truly accomplishes all its goals, the way fellow epic The Northman managed earlier this year. But I can’t help but admire the audacity of the filmmaking, the skill of the craftsmanship, and the honorable intentions of the story. It’s not perfect, yet it is perfectly bold.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is now playing exclusively in theaters