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Three Thousand Years of Longing

After 'Mad Max: Fury Road', Australian director George Miller spirits up an enchanting and affecting tale about stories and wishes starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba.
By Sarah Ward
September 01, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
September 01, 2022
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No one should need to cleanse their palates between Mad Max movies — well, maybe after Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, depending on your mileage with it — but if anyone does, George Miller shouldn't be one of them. The Australian auteur gifted the world the hit dystopian franchise, has helmed and penned each and every chapter, and made Mad Max: Fury Road an astonishing piece of cinema that's one of the very best in every filmic category that applies. Still, between that kinetic, frenetic, rightly Oscar-winning movie and upcoming prequel Furiosa, Miller has opted to swish around romantic fantasy Three Thousand Years of Longing. He does love heightened drama and also myths, including in the series he's synonymous with. He adores chronicling yearnings and hearts' desires, too, whether surveying vengeance and survival, the motivations behind farm animals gone a-wandering in Babe: Pig in the City, the dreams of dancing penguins in Happy Feet, or love, happiness and connection here.

In other words, although adapted from AS Byatt's short story The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Three Thousand Years of Longing is unshakeably and inescapably a Miller movie — and it's as alive with his flair for the fantastical as most of his resume. It's a wonder for a range of reasons, one of which is simple: the last time that the writer/director made a movie that didn't connect to the Mad Max, Babe or Happy Feet franchises was three decades back. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that this tale about a narratologist (Tilda Swinton, Memoria) and the Djinn (Idris Elba, Beast) she uncorks from a bottle, and the chats they have about their histories as the latter tries to ensure the former makes her three wishes to truly set him free, is told with playfulness, inventiveness, flamboyance and a deep heart. Much of Miller's filmography is, but there's a sense with Three Thousand Years of Longing that he's been released, too — even if he loves his usual confines, as audiences do as well.

"My story is true," Swinton's Alithea Binnie announces at the get-go. "You're more likely to believe me, however, if I tell it as a fairy tale." Cue another Miller trademark, unpacking real emotions and woes within scenarios that are anything but standard — two people talking about their lives in a hotel is hardly fanciful, though. The tales that the Djinn relays, with debts clearly owed to One Thousand and One Nights, also dwell in the everyday; some just happened millennia ago. The Djinn loved the Queen of Sheba (model Aamito Lagum), but lost her to the envious King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad, Mako). He then languished in the the Ottoman court, after young concubine Gulten (Ece Yüksel, Family Secrets) wished for the heart of Suleiman the Magnificent's (Lachy Hulme, Preacher) son Mustafa (singer Matteo Bocelli). And, in the 19th century, the Djinn fell for Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar, Between Two Dawns), the brilliantly smart but stifled wife of a Turkish merchant.

What spirits the Djinn's time-hopping memories beyond the ordinary and into the metaphysical, and Alithea's narrative as well, is the figure first seen billowing out of blue-and-white glass, then filling an entire suite, then slipping into white towelling. Something magical happens when you pop on a hotel bathrobe — that space and that cosy clothing are instantly transporting — and while Alithea resists the very idea of making wishes, she gets swept along by her new companion anyway. As a scholar of stories and the meanings they hold, she knows the warnings surrounding uttering hopes and having them granted. She also says she's content with her intellectual, independent and isolated-by-choice life, travelling the world to conferences like the one that's brought her to Turkey and then to the Istanbul bazaar where she spies the Djinn's misshapen home, even if her own backstory speaks of pain and self-protective mechanisms. And yet, "I want our solitudes to be together", she eventually declares, and with exactly the titular emotion.

Adapting this swoony affair for the screen with co-screenwriter Augusta Gore, his daughter, Miller knows that Three Thousand Years of Longing is indeed a cautionary tale, too. As Alithea is well aware, simply wishing can't genuinely make dreams come true; life is much too thorny and slippery for that. And, even when she allows herself to forget it despite her early protests, and the film lets her — Elba can fight lions on-screen in one flick, then capture hearts and dissolve defences in the next — Miller never does. It doesn't go unnoticed that every narrative within Three Thousand Years of Longing is one of captivity and power imbalances, with imagery to reinforce it. Containers and chains, physical and otherwise, envelop characters in all layers of the story. Love at times is one such prison, including when Alithea asks for it. This is a romance, but perhaps the most affecting notion it ponders is how love isn't really love if it isn't freely given.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is also still a fairy tale as Alithea promises, with enchantment breezing in, lives forever changed and lessons imparted. Being so passionate and fantastical while never losing sight of life's essential truths is a complicated mix, and it often makes for a beautiful one under Miller's guidance. The intimacy and feeling when Three Thousand Years of Longing remains a superb two-hander isn't just charming — it's potent and moving. With her sharp red bob, circular glasses and thick but melodious accent, and with his calming eyes and perfect mix of charisma and sorrow, Swinton and Elba could've spent the entire movie talking and it would've been a pleasure to watch. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande has already shown how enticing a hotel room, a couple of chattering souls and laying oneself emotionally bare can be, especially with magnetic performances, and this would make a wonderful double feature with it.

Human existence isn't just quiet, transformative, deep-and-meaningful one-on-one moments in plush surrounds and outfits, though, just as love isn't always bliss. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a work of two distinct approaches, recognising that, and also letting Miller bust out every stylistic yearning he has whenever his film ventures past Alithea and the Djinn conversing to its blasts from the past. The visuals swoop and slide, with Mad Max: Fury Road cinematographer John Seale again conveying his director's energy with verve and panache. The swift editing by Fury Road's Margaret Sixel, and the feature's creative transitions, do the same. Colour blazes bright, as does detail — gleaming from every surface, in fact — and spinning stories and escaping into fables becomes the most vibrant and urgent thing in the world. While watching and getting lost in Three Thousand Years of Longing, it frequently feels that way.

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