There’s a great danger in telling a story about telling stories. I’ve often said storytelling, filmmaking, in particular, is like a magic trick. But, much like with an actual magic show, if a magician spends too much time talking about the magic of magic, it can grow a little dull.
George Miller is a deft storyteller and daring one, so it would be safe to assume that a movie about the magic of “storytelling” would be somewhat magical in his hands. Of course, Three Thousand Years of Longing has its faults, but I found myself charmed by Miller’s desire to ponder age-old themes of loneliness, passion, love, lust, and whatever else, all while playfully poking at the tropes and structures of stories.
Granted, if you expect another masterpiece on the level of Mad Max: Fury Road, you will be disappointed. However, Miller’s charm is his willingness to do different types of stories. This is a director who gave us Mad Max, but he also gave us movies about a talking pig in Babe and Babe: Pig in the City.
My point is that Miller is a director that is famous to audiences for a type of movie but, in actuality, has a talent and an appetite for something more. In a lesser director’s hands, Three Thousand Years of Longing could be death on celluloid, a meandering diatribe whose dullness is only matched but its navel-gazing. Sadly, there is some navel-gazing, and towards the end, a stench of dullness begins to seep into the movie, but by the time the lights come up, I am smiling and clapping.
Three Thousand Years of Longing can be neatly divided up into three stores. The first story is about Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a narratologist who discovers a glass oil bottle while in Turkey for a conference. Inside the bottle is Djinn (Idris Elba), the genie she finds when she opens the bottle. Djinn offers to grant three of Alithea’s heart desires. Alithea, being an expert in narratives, smells a trap, and soon the two are discussing the nature of stories, in particular stories about genies.
The second story is Djinn telling Alithea about his life. Djinn tells Alithea how he came to be trapped in servitude, his past masters and loves, which leads us to the third story, the story of Alithea and Djinn as they live their life together.
Miller cleverly casts Swinton and Elba as his leads. The two are far and away two of the most fascinating actors working today. Swinton is an actor who can transform herself into characters that are so complicated that we often leave perplexed by them. Elba is a movie star who is rarely given a chance to shine as brightly as he deserves, but who also has a quiet power to convince us he is whoever he says he is. Together the two help Miller and his co-writer Augusta Gore through the rough spots.
Gore and Miller adapted Three Years of Longing from A.S. Byatt’s novel “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye .” I haven’t read the book, but Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like one of those books without chapters, where stories blend into other stories, like a sort of literary ouroboros. Truthfully, when Miller and Gore allow Three Thousand Years of Longing to meander, it is when both Swinton, Elba, and the film are at their best.
Miller and his cameraman, the legendary John Seale, have done everything from the Aussie Nicole Kidman motocross movie BMX to Mad Max: Fury Road, with a bevy of hits and, misses in between; make sure Swinton and Elba are always framed well, if sometimes rather pedestrian. Thankfully, Margaret Sixel’s editing comes in for the clutch, as she helps Seale and Miller when the script begins to sag.
I admit that I am a bit of a sucker for characters talking about craftsmanship and philosophies in stories. But especially when one character brings up an old joke as an example of what they mean, it’s my Achille’s heel.
But far and away, the best thing about Three Thousand Years of Longing, besides its unrepentant starry-eyed belief that love will overcome all, is how it demands you not think too hard about what is “real” and how something is “possible .”Miller and Gore understand the purpose of a story isn’t its realism but its ability to draw you in.
The best stories are the ones that never pretend to be accurate because once you start to introduce reality, it falls apart. It’s “Once upon a time,” not “Saturday morning at approximately 9 am in Burbank.” Miller and Gore explore how desire and love can push us in myriad ways while also realizing there is a difference between storytelling and reportage, and far too many people seem to conflate the two.
At times Miller and Seale’s camera is alive and unpredictable in Three Thousand Years of Longing. In particular, in the scenes where Elba’s Djinn talks about his past. In particular, when he tells Alithea about the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum). Lagum may have few words, yet emanates strange hypnotic confidence that we understand Djinn’s longing for her.
Unfortunately, there is also an element of orientalism, white people telling Arab stories. However, Miller does a good job making sure his cast isn’t an exercise in whiteface. One of the strengths is the way Miller and Seale parade a wide variety of bodies, both clothed and naked, all framed with sensual appreciation. Miller and Seale attempt to show the vast swaths of sensual appetites that we as humans possess, yet strangely, it is strictly heterosexual.
Where Three Thousand Years of Longing stumbles is that it is a very traditional exploration for all its grand posturing of love and companionship. Seale’s camera may be alive, and his frames are filled with, at times, almost storybook levels of sumptuous color; in the end, it is very traditional.
Still, I couldn’t help being smitten by the film. Even when it started to lose me toward the end, I was still enraptured as I tried to figure out where the movie might go next. I was even apprehensive because this is, after all, a story about Djinn, and those are always cautionary tales, and I was worried for poor Alithea. Still, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a love story, not a cautionary tale. In many ways, Three Thousand Years of Longing reminded me of the magical realism movies from the indy circuit in the 90s.
A dash of mysticism and a dose of reality, all as an excuse to pontificate about grander concepts. An era where Hollywood chased Ingmar Bergman with mixed success. To see a film do that in this day and age, flaws and all is refreshing.
Images courtesy of United Artists Releasing
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