Three Thousand Years of Longing
The subtle move isn’t really George Miller’s strong suit, which is no problem when it comes to the amped-up fizz-pop action of a Mad Max: Fury Road. Nor is it a negative in his depiction of this djinn’s fantastic tales in Three Thousand Years of Longing, which are lush, vibrant and palette-enhanced with similar acumen to Fury Road while steering for a markedly different tone. It’s less welcome when it comes to announcing theme or character, however. That works like gangbusters for the mythmaking of Mad Max 2/ The Road Warrior, but quickly becomes a bludgeon if he’s attaching himself to a sincere message. Three Thousand Years of Longing thus mostly gets by on its opulent dazzle, but it doesn’t leave you feeling especially moved or enlightened.
Alithea: Whatever it is, I’m sure it has an interesting story.
All credit to Miller, though, for picking a property no one else probably would and getting $60m to play with (the picture was a pronounced flop, but the only mystery is that anyone believed it might be anything but). The problem, perhaps, is that, having refashioned himself as a mythic Joseph Campbellian carpenter with the same Mad Max 2 and becoming some kind of self-appointed expert on such matters, you’re tempted to put Three Thousand Years of Longing’s self-reflexivity down to his perception of himself as story king. He is the audience’s djinn. That is, if you can forget Lorenzo’s Oil (Lorenzo’s what?) and Happy Feet 2. The concomitant danger of this is that, by drawing attention to oneself, one dissolves the magic of it all. I was reminded at points of the not dissimilarly anthological adult fairy tale Tale of Tales, which didn’t lead by the nose and thus resonated much more strongly.
Alithea: Mythology is what we knew back then. Science is what we know so far.
To this end, Miller’s protagonist is none more versed in the nuance of story. Tilda Swinton’s Alithea Binnie is a narratologist, one who “tells stories about stories” (which is what Miller is doing here). Like Miller, a trained doctor, there is a push-pull between the wonder of fiction and the deflation of “fact”. Alithea’s industry is to deflate, to expose the workings of the story and reduce them to scientific modelling (or, as signified by her staying in the Agatha Christie room of an Istanbul hotel for her lecture, revealing the mystery in a nice tidy explanation). The lecture introduction by Professor Gühan (Erdil Yaşaroğlu) asks “How can you explain the seasons… if you don’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun, while tilted on an axis?”. The explicable is everything. What else could we do but resort to stories, which were “once the only way to make our bewildering existence coherent?” It is thus no wonder that an irate djinn, manifesting in the audience, should yell “RUBBISH!” when Alithea asserts “Gods and monsters reduce to metaphor”.
Alithea: You’re electromagnetic?
Djinn: As you are made of dust, we are subtle fire.
The picture intimates that science is antithetical to the stuff of djinn, the stuff that they are made of. He is composed of electromagnetic energy so is unsurprisingly stricken by the constant noise, buzz and interference of a festering 5G London. But lest we speculate that Miller is offering a critique, he populates Three Thousand Years of Longing with the coof-fearing masked everywhere: at the lecture; on a train. That’s a clear director’s choice, and it seems to be the director-doctor’s choice.
Djinn: Humankind is a wonder. All these astonishments in the last 2,000 years.
Alithea: Despite all the whizzbang, we remain bewildered.
What does Miller think? As a man of science, I suspect he sees the storytelling just as analyst Alithea sets out. But as a teller himself, he is able to celebrate their lustre. It’s noticeable how the contrast between science and magic are emphasised throughout. Such that we must ask, were stories really designed to make sense of existence, or were we told stories to make us forget? To obfuscate? To bury the knowledge we had centuries and millennium ago beneath the false gospels of mainstream science. It would have been nice if the Djinn (Idris Elba) had rebuked the modern world, but he instead appears enchanted by it. He expresses wonder at surgery (very Miller), the workings of the Hadron Collider (which “probed the essence of matter”) and the wonders of the NASA universe (which “listens to the whispers of stars long dead”); all the storyteller sees are the new stories, ironically ones he takes as absolute truths. Alithea is on point when she calls it “whizzbang”; it is invention, distraction.
Alithea: How can I persuade you I once found love with a djinn?
But one reading of the picture is that Alithea’s experience is entirely her own escape valve, the fantasy world she has managed to turn into a career; “I believe there are those who need to believe in them” says Gühan before she encounters Elba’s Djinn. Alithea, “a solitary person by nature”, is habitually visualising unreal persons, djinn, so why should Elba’s Djinn be any different? If this isn’t supposed to suggest he’s all in her head, since she’s beset by visions of them before rather conveniently meeting her own personal, real one, it’s the most ungainly of storytelling tactic, the sort Miller, in his prowess, should know better than. Of course, that would require the scene where Alithea introduces Djinn to neighbours Fanny (Anne Charleston) and Clementine (Melissa Jaffer) to be a figment of her imagination (unless they’re humouring her and don’t see anyone).
Miller and daughter August Gore have adapted AS Byatt’s 1994 short story/novella The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (from the collection of the same title), and Three Thousand Years of Longing isn’t your usual construction of narrative tension; it’s amiable and conversational, as Djinn relates his various imprisonments and releases prior to falling in Alithea’s lap. The tales are interesting, but they aren’t compelling. After all, there aren’t any true surprises here because, as Alithea suggests, they are inevitably cautionary. The visuals do deliver, though, as Miller takes delight equally in the exotic and grotesque. Indeed, at one point he picks up where Terry Gilliam’s sultan’s palace left off with corpulent-plus chattels presented to the younger son of the sultan (“The greater the expanse of flesh, the more immense the pleasure”).
Alithea: I want our solitudes to be together.
Amiable describes the performances too. I’m frequently unimpressed by Elba’s work, particularly on big movies (your Hobbs and Shaw, The Dark Tower, Pacific Rim or The Suicide Squad). Perhaps it’s down to first seeing him in The Wire, but asking him to deliver an accent usually seems to give his performance a boost; maybe it’s the demand of greater concentration, or that extra step in inhabiting a part. Regardless, he’s agreeably stoic as the genial genie. Swinton keeps her Scots brogue and is, of course, always good value. They have chemistry, but not electricity, which is essential to the moral (Alithea wishes for them to fall in love, but of course, however heartfelt, conjuring doesn’t bring with it true feeling).
The question would be, does Three Thousand Years of Longing’s construction gain anything from such self-aware exhumation of its tropes? Alithea doesn’t need to be a narratologist to make the mistake she does and rectify it. Indeed, the actual dilemma isn’t so far from the trio of tales Djinn tells, in which passions are, in one way or another, not reciprocated or are delusionary. The point may be that the framework offers the illusion of depth. And, to be fair, that illusion does much to carry the proceedings along.
While we’re considering Miller’s penchant for overstatement, Alithea’s aforementioned elderly neighbours, one of whom is best known as Neighbours’ Madge Bishop, launch into a tirade at Alithea for sympathising with “ethnics” (“Embarrassed by our British culture, are we?”) Quite what the scene is doing there, I don’t know, aside from the obvious that Miller is after brownie points, virtual signalling about the evils of racism (they duly fall into awed silence when Alithea later introduces her big black lover; providing of course, he’s real). In much the same way he depicted a hallowed haven of women as a contrast to the festering, toxic kingdom of Immortan Joe in Fury Road (that is, after having a good lech at some hot young flesh during the initial desert escape scene).
Alithea: There’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale. None end happily.
Slate debated, wringing its hands with typically woke deliberation – is it okay to like this movie? Am I a true woke artisan if I do? – whether Elba was playing a “magical negro”. It would have been amusing, had our narratologist Alithea brought that very trope up. “Do you realise you might be construed as a stereotype, Mr Djinn, and were it not for super-woke Fury Road, George would possibly be getting the Farrelly treatment? If anyone bothered watching his movie, that is?” Super-woke George is in post-production on Fury Road prequel Furiosa at the moment, because absolutely no one was asking for his Mad Max universe follow up to vanish Max. But that’s the way it works. So even if Three Thousand Years of Longing had fallen foul of the woke police, all would surely have soon been forgiven.