Of all the delirious sights that fill the screen and dazzle the eyes in George Miller’s delightfully idiosyncratic “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” the most surprising is also, without a doubt, the most banal: It is the four-inch piece of cloth that actress Tilda Swinton drapes across her nose and mouth as her character rides a city bus.
It would seem this fairy-tale landscape that Miller has dreamed up – a land of Djinns and magic wishes and men who morph into malicious little ghouls before scattering away as 10,000 scarabs – is also, apparently, a world shook by COVID.
This tension between escapism and the dreariness we often hope to escape lies at the heart of the mad scientist Miller’s latest experiment, which premiered to waves of applause at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday. Like “Mad Max: Fury Road” before it, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is another kind of blockbuster that tries to lead by example, a big-budget fantasia that argues there are more imaginative and original ways for Hollywood to employ its tools.
Adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt, the film is also a very talky two-hander that feels like a close cousin to Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” as it mixes screen spectacle with philosophical reflection onto the nature of love, agency, and social responsibility. And like Lee’s 2012 Oscar winner, which was also lifted from the page, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” feels closer in nature to the literary tradition than to the recent studio model that only touches ethereal subjects with the promise of a 30-minute action finale.
Tales, and the way they told, are the very subject of this film, which spends nearly half its runtime in a Turkish hotel room as a self-sufficient Englishwoman (Swinton, of course) swaps stories with (and just maybe catches feelings for) an immortal Djinn (Idris Elba). Visiting Istanbul to deliver a conference on storytelling, the self-contained if hardly lonely “narratologist” (“I tell stories about stories,” she explains of her academic field) discovers – well, what do you expect? Out of an enchanted little bauble emerges a very powerful friend.
Or is this Djinn – who as per narrative tradition must grant her three wishes to obtain his freedom – really a friend at all? Can he ever be, when he is essentially her slave, and is his promise of three wishes really all it’s cracked up for? “Remember,” the academic reminds us, “all stories about wishes are cautionary tales.”
As if to break the ice, or to acclimate into this very odd bond that now links them, the pair swap personal histories of heartbreak and past mistakes, though hers are significantly more earthbound than the Djinn’s experience watching Solomon court Sheba before haunting the palace of Suleiman the Great before ending up in the gilded prison of an unhappy young bride. Each of these extended flashback sequences is introduced with an auspicious chapter card (“A Djinn’s Oblivion” and “Two Brothers and a Giantess” stick out in particular) and employ a visual scheme that leans all the way into artifice. Like so many modern spectacles, this film was clearly shot almost wholly before a green screen, only far from hiding it, Miller wants to emphasize that fact.
The entire project has a self-reflexive air, as the Djinn relays the circumstances of his three imprisonments and the academic offers criticism and commentary in real time. But it never becomes a drag, as the filmmaker livens every frame with his unique brand of cartoonish compositions pushed forward by a buoyant sense of movement. Miller has a delicious sense of visual invention and a burlesque sense of humor, both of which he trots out to good effect here.
Like many modern blockbuster maestros, Miller might believe that the secret to “Star Wars” was its cantina scene, which introduced so many beguiling background characters seemingly living their own tales, creating a fantasy landscape that felt like a wide and open world. He certainly applied that lesson in “Fury Road” and he does it again here, embroidering so many shots with curious and eye-catching touches, allowing his imagination to spin out in all directions while anchoring the narrative with a degree of intellectual ambition.
Unlike other film contemporaries, Miller is also more direct about his apprehensions, making those thoughts subtle but clear. Swinton’s narrative expert gives a speech about how our dreams move from the mythological to the mundane before a large mural of nearly every superhero currently being developed as cross-media IP. If it wouldn’t prompt cease-and-desist letters from corporate lawyers, this story could easily open with the line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” While those words are never uttered, the belief informs every facet of the film.