Review: THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING, Djinn and Tonic
It’s been almost a decade since George Miller (Babe: Pig in the City, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Witches of Eastwick), a then 70-year-old, Australian filmmaker some dismissed as either washed or well past his prime, proved doubters spectacularly wrong, writing and directing the best action film of the last quarter century, Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller brought an audacious blend of ambition, verve, and craftsmanship to the long-delayed, at one time apocryphal, fourth entry in the Mad Max series that began cinematic life as a modest, low-budget effort in 1979 with a young, pre-controversial Mel Gibson in the title role.
While Miller subsequently mooted a Mad Max prequel/spin-off centered on a significantly younger version of Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa (it’s currently in production with Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character), he turned his focus in the intervening years to an entirely different, standalone passion project, Three Thousand Years of Longing, an adaptation of Mann Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt’s (Possession, Babel Tower) short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye.”
The result, like so much of Miller's non-Mad Max output, will likely alienate moviegoers expecting the next, great action film. Miller has always preferred to move among and between disparate genres, not only testing his world-class talents as a filmmaker, but expanding his considerable skillset, working with different narrative tropes, conventions, and traditions, while pushing available digital technology beyond old borders into new territory.
With a film centered on a seemingly contented, middle-aged, British academic, Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), and a narratology conference in Istanbul, Turkey, that goes awry in both predictable and unpredictable ways, Miller might be telling one of his most deeply personal, most emotionally resonant stories yet. A meta-film about meta-texts, Three Thousand Years of Longing, revolves around Alithea’s discovery of a real-life (or reel-life) Djinn (Idris Elba), an initially fearsome, terrifying creature who, despite multiple protestations to the contrary, may be be the most deeply human character in Three Thousand Years of Longing. As an ancient, wish-granting being, the Djinn has closely observed humans at their best and their worst, the former when they love and desire, the latter when they hate and destroy.
No mere up-close-and-personal observer of humanity, however, the Djinn has loved too, women long shrouded in mystery and myth, like the Queen Sheba (Aamito Lagum), one of the most beautiful women of her or any other time, or Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), a brilliant scientist and mathemetician silenced by the gender heirarchy and inflexible patriarchal institutions of hers, and women whose names, actions, and decisions have been lost to time and memory. And in telling each new story to an increasingly besotted Alithea, the Djinn awakens a new desire in Alithea to no longer strictly live a life of the mind, a life of serene, detached contentment, but also a life of the body, a life of physical desire and emotional connection.
All along, Alithea and the Djinn talk and talk, mostly from the confines of a comfortable, if slightly cramped, hotel room in Istanbul while they lounge in hotel-provided bathrobes while Miller, a master of narrative form and function, allies each story with some of the most ravishing, sensual imagery put on digital film this year, last year, or really any year.
Three Thousand Years of Longing stumbles somewhat in its final moments as Miller tries to resolve the inherent tensions in Alithea and the Djinn’s increasingly tangled relationship that's both true to the characters and satisfying to audiences on the other side of the screen, the reservoir of good will built up through the previous two hours more than makes up for any loss of focus or the rush to resolve the obstacles standing in the way of flawed mortal and immortal beings finding temporary happiness in each other’s company.
And with Swinton, a performer of great subtlety and delicacy, and Elba, an actor of great depth of feeling and emotion, as Miller’s standard bearers carrying his hopeful, optimistic message, it’s almost enough to believe in the reality of the myths underlying ancient religions and new, and contrary to an early theme concerning the conflict between the stories science tells being devoid of wonder and awe, a convergence between the two, the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and the stories we tell about the world and our place in the world. Science doesn’t erase the great myths, but exists alongside them, giving us different means to reaching similar, complementary ends.
Three Thousand Years of Longing opens Friday, August 26 in movie theaters everywhere.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
- George Miller
- George Miller
- Augusta Gore
- A.S. Byatt
- Tilda Swinton
- Idris Elba
- Pia Thunderbolt