Like the moral of a fable, filmmakers have been trying to capture the ephemeral fantasy of the fairy tale on screen for as long as motion pictures have been an art, and for just as long, they’ve turned good stories bad in the attempt. The stylized and heightened reality fairy tales naturally attract the visual imagination of directors, sending them down winding labyrinths without a narrative thread to follow and frequently getting lost in the attempt.
George Miller has been down this road multiple times, both successfully (Babe: Pig in the City) and less so (Happy Feet Two), to the point where even his stories of real life, like Lorenzo’s Oil, seem transported to the world of the parable. Sisyphean-like, the successes refuse to de facto breed continued successes, leaving him starting at the bottom of the hill each time.
His most recent attempt, Three Thousand Years of Longing, makes plentiful use of nearly 50 years of experience in visual invention and lush imagery, but none of that kind binds multiple layers of fables and narrators into a cogent whole.
Rejoining his long-time cinematographer-collaborator John Seale (both making their first film since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road), Miller paints a world of extravagant hues, mutating objects and constant shifting of frame and perspective as he tries to capture the magic of a fable in a bottle (or at least onto a film print) and imbue the modern world with its majesty in his adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.
It’s the same job academic narratologist Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) has taken on for herself. She has spent her life pouring over dusty tomes and old manuscripts, absorbing and internalizing the history and structure of the story in lieu of family or personal relationships. Instead, she spends her time lecturing the younger generations about the cultural roots behind these stories and why they are still important, though it’s not clear she even believes what she is saying.
Every strange occurrence she brushes against, including sudden hallucinations of goblins or robed men, is explained away through cold reason and given no chance to perch in her life. So naturally, when she accidentally releases a Djinn (Idris Elba) from his bottle during a visit to Istanbul, she is dubious about his claims or promises, requiring proof of his past and intent before doing anything as dangerous as making a wish.
Alithea has done the reading and knows the stories behind wishes and the cruel fate waiting for most who take advantage of them. Instead, she removes herself from action to the audience and turns the Djinn into a modern-day Scheherazade (of sorts) who must spin stories from his own history — explaining how on earth he arrived in a bottle in a store in modern Istanbul — in order to win his freedom by granting Alithea her wishes.
The turn to narration and fantasy is clearly what drew Miller to the story, and he unleashes all of his impressive whimsy on it, creating a thriving Middle Eastern phantasmagoria with fluorescent colors reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s work on The Masque of the Red Death where any piece of the foreground or background could suddenly reveal itself to be a magical denizen as at home in a Guillermo del Toro film as a modern Arabian Nights. It also plays around with just enough Orientalism to make Edward Said claw his way out of the grave and search for victims.
It’s a potent backdrop for the Djinn’s stories – what attracts Miller to fantasy is what attracts us, which attempts to add depth to all the surface magic. A fool for love, the Djinn explains the three times he was almost freed from his prison of wishes and how it was foiled by his own love for various human women, from the Queen of Sheba, who tossed him over for King Solomon, to a concubine who used his wishes to ensnare a sultan or a young genius who — upon having the depths of creation opened to her — realized how love was a prison as much as a release and turns her back on it.
Individually, each of these tales has both the evocative depth of magic and the tragic pathos of failed romance to fill a story in its own right. Together, they are rushed through in a swirl of color and narration, given little time to breathe while also stealing time from Alithea and the Djinn, who are left as spectators — audience and narrator — rather than inhabitants in the story that must ultimately be theirs.
By the time we return to them in Alithea’s palatial Istanbul hotel room and prepare to leave it for the real world, much time has passed for us, but they are still as lightly described or understood as the film started having taken a second seat to Elba’s version of the Arabian Nights. The rapidly switching point of view, with Alithea replacing the Djinn as narrator and reducing him to the audience, doesn’t leave much to hold on to or understand about either of them except that they’ve both been abandoned by love and aren’t sure what to do with themselves.
The sudden emergence of Alithea as a person again, trying to literally bring magic into the real world and watching it be destroyed by it, is spontaneous but not prepared for. Miller has been so enraptured with the beauty of his fantasy, just as the Djinn and Alithea were, that it hasn’t paid attention to what was going on around him, leaving his audience lost in his wandering wake.
Miller’s visual instincts are as sharp as ever, conjuring worlds like no other into existence for us. But films are more than visuals, and stories are more than evocations. They need to be harnessed and pressed into shape, and Miller never quite manages it. There is magic in it, the same as there is in a rainbow or a setting sun, but it’s fleeting in the same way and easily forgotten once it has passed.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING REVIEW SCORE: 5 OUT OF 10
Rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence, MGM will release Three Thousand Years of Longing in theaters on August 25.
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015, he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and, in 2018, wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between, he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.