George Miller is one of modern cinema’s most unique voices. It doesn’t matter where you find yourself in his filmography; there’s something completely singular about his films and filmmaking, from Mad Max, through to Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet up to Fury Road. And now comes his long-awaited follow-up to the adrenaline-pumping, Oscar-winning Mad Max sequel is quite the antithesis to his last masterpiece, the decidedly intimate yet epic Three Thousand Years of Longing.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a sweepingly romantic ode and lament to the very nature of storytelling and wonderment. A wholly unique adult fairytale in which Miller tries to find the enchantment of storytelling through the lens of myth and legend, the way in which awe and magic gets lost in our modern world, and the places in which we find that magic once more. It is beautiful, and earnest, with a deep love for the tradition of storytelling and a commitment to its unique romantic core, with Miller opening up his heart for the audience to bask in.
Adapted from a short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt and inspired by A Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights, of which the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves come from), the film centres around literary scholar Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a woman content with her life of solitude, whose luck in romance mostly revolves around her exploration of stories and myth. While in Istanbul for a conference, she and her friend explore a market for a trinket, a souvenir for Alithea’s time in Istanbul, when she finds a damaged bottle. This bottle, Alithea ultimately discovers, contains a Djinn (Idris Elba), who has lived through millennia encountering many different historical figures, all with a story behind them. Alithea, being the scholar she is, is wary of the Djinn and all the stories behind Djinn’s wish-giving powers. In response to this, the Djinn tells Alithea of his stories of how he came to be trapped over the years, in order to illustrate his longing for escape.
Miller breathes magic and beauty into every facet of this film. Miller crafts something that is quiet and intimate yet filled to the brim with fantastical epic storytelling and long past histories, in which he explores what makes storytelling so special. The storied auteur crafts dark yet gorgeous worlds which the Djinn inhabits as he tells of his tragedies, all with their own unique looks and feels, from the kingdom of Saba to the palace of the Ottoman Empire to the mansion of an old Turkish merchant, right up to a hotel room in Istanbul and modern London. Miller opens up his heart in a way that few filmmakers are able to and present a familiar yet totally unique vision that feels like pure magic, capturing wonder and myth in a time in which it seems all the harder to find such majesty in film today. It’s not a mistake that finding that a sense of enchanting spectacle in today’s world is a major theme of the film, nor that Miller is interested in it considering his filmography, yet it is no small feat to pull it off, and he does.
Miller and co-writer (and daughter) Augusta Gore carefully interweave the stories and the emotionality of the film in ways that are hard to garner on first viewing fully. The film at times, has a reticent nature to it, particularly around Alithea, so much so that upon first viewing, a particular beat caught me off guard. To tell the truth, the first time I watched this, I had some reservations, mainly surrounding the script. The pacing and the reserved nature felt somewhat off at times and diminished the film’s power. The second viewing squashed all of those reservations I had. For whatever reason, I failed to pick up that it’s all very intentional and a beautiful choice that deals with Alithea’s romantic repression, her longing for love and how she comes to understand her own romantic core swept me away. Miller and Gore’s complex understanding of love and tenderness, emotional reservation and romantic longing fills this film to the brim with such beauty and impactful storytelling,
The two lead performances are a key part to the magic of the film. Alithea’s reserved and intellectually focused demeanour provides a unique heart to the film, and Swinton captures her complexity with so much grace and love. Meanwhile, Elba delivers what might be his greatest performance in film. There’s a deep tragedy to Elba, and he delivers it with the utmost empathy. The Djinn feels like living, breathing history; every line delivery embodied the titular longing, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking at times as Elba tells these stories.
There’s something innately magical to Three Thousand Years of Longing. Textually, it is directly about the magic of romance, metatextually, it’s about the magic of stories and the creating magic in our modern life. Even just to the level of George Miller following up Fury Road with this esoteric fantasy romance film feels innately magical. It’s the kind of film that feels as though it shouldn’t exist, particularly in today’s cinematic landscape. Miller uses the cinematic form to transport the audience into these story worlds, a film bursting with imagination and, above all else, passion and love even it is the most tragic of moments, a beautiful, unique love story.
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