In his first film since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller reminds us why he truly deserves the accolade of “visionary”.
By any standard, Three Thousand Years of Longing is an audacious change of pace from the filmmaker who filmography is largely defined by scorched wastelands populated by monstrous motorheads. Well, that and a talking pig. And dancing penguins. In any case, Miller’s latest funnels his prodigious imagination into a centuries-spanning fantasy that, to my mind, may be the definitive telling of the genie myth.
Based on A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, A Thousand Years of Longing tells the story of solitary scholar Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton, mesmerising in brittle poise and subtlety). Visiting Istanbul for work, amid piles of trinkets in an anonymous shop in the Grand Bazaar, Alithea discovers an ornate glass bottle. Back in her hotel room, she loosens the stopper and, in doing so, unleashes a djinn (Idris Elba, utterly magnetic)1, imprisoned for millennia. As his customary, he offers Alithea three wishes, but, unlike most hapless mortals, she knows better than to blithely accept.
Alithea, you see, is a narratologist. She knows all too well that every story of a wish magically filled is, without exception, a cautionary tale. In other hands, the story of a narratologist might seem arch or self-satisfied. In the hands of Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore, it seems an inspired choice, one that allows them to explore the nature of stories. Determined to convince her of his good intentions, the djinn tells Alithea the story of his imprisonment – his three imprisonments, each the result of his own desire.
I’m not usually be one to be swept away by cinematic flights of fancy, with a few notable exceptions,2 but I found Three Thousand Years of Longing to be utterly compelling.
Lensed by John Seale, who previously worked with Miller on Fury Road, Three Thousand Years is similarly hyper-saturated, but here the effect is one of burnished warmth. Though ostensibly divided into three tales3, taking us from the court of the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Stacie Lagum) through to the workshop of a female genius (Burcu Gölgedar) in the 19th Turkey, the film has a Scheherazadian sweep to it that made the 108 minute runtime fly by.
More than just the astonishing visual spectacle of ancient palaces and magical beings – the image of a huge gold foot wedged in a bathroom door has remained stuck in my head – there’s also humour and humanity on display. Where Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, a similarly fantastical triptych, was a twisted fairytale that regarded its cast as either victim or perpetrator, Three Thousand Years affords even its grotesqueries compassion – the addled Ibrahim (Jack Braddy), imprisoned with a coterie of obese concubines, reaching out an oil-soaked hand for his mother.
A romantic parable full of loss, loneliness, and love, Three Thousand Years makes the case that its myth and desire than define our lives as much as knowledge and logic; that much as we try to deny it, we are creatures of passion, not reason. With its two remarkable central performances, and buoyed irresistibly by Junkie XL’s lush, evocative score, Three Thousand Years is pure, unadulterated movie magic.