If, like me, news of a George Miller movie at Cannes piqued your appetite for another dripping hamburger in the vein of Mad Max: Fury Road, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a nicely decorated cupcake. Or to be more nation-appropriate, Miller’s latest is a koala, not a kangaroo. Based on the 1994 short story ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ by English novelist AS Byatt, Three Thousand Years is a passion project developed by Miller for more than 20. It shows. Tilda Swinton stars as nervous narratologist Alithea Binnie and Idris Elba is the Djinn (or genie) Alithea inadvertently releases from a tasteful little bottle she finds in an Istanbul shop of knick-knacks. But just how inadvertent is it? A colleague presses Alithea to buy a different, less dusty bottle than the one she chooses. She’s committed to this one.
Three Thousand Years of Longing exists to ponder questions of fate, want and, above all, love. When the mighty Djinn offers Alithea three wishes, she must ponder those questions too. The repressed English professor of literature, who keeps her cards so close to her chest she denies she even has any, is a character with much more nuance and intrigue than she seems. She has plenty desire too, though we’re handily informed how this has been silenced by years of disappointment and tragedy. That she has in common with the enigmatic Djinn, a seemingly eternal being who has toiled through lost loves for, well, three thousand years. His explanation for how he finds himself here, with lengthy flashbacks featuring the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), Prince Mustafa (Matteo Bocelli) and more, is what pushes Three Thousand Years forward. When the Djinn is freed in Alithea’s Turkish hotel room, she is stunned – but due to her profession, well aware of the source material. Even so, the Djinn’s use of his powers on her, and the uncomfortably intimate questions she must now answer for herself, are new territory for Alithea, who has three thousand years’ worth of her own desires, too.
If that sounds like a fairy tale, it is one. Byatt’s short story is a slight and self-contained ditty, rather than an epic tale of adventure. Its most dramatic elements are long in the past. The Djinn and Alithea are just two world-weary characters trying to make sense of them. Miller has called his adaptation the “opposite” of the Mad Max series, and you can see why. Its ending will have you thinking critically about the nature of storytelling, but it won’t knock you out like Fury Road did, and still does. Having said that, Swinton’s subtle performance as Alithea is a real marvel, and one of the best at this year’s festival. So often hired to play outlandish roles, Swinton is an unusual choice for someone so temperate. But her Alithea is charmingly secretive without being outright deceptive. That careful balance is compelling enough to keep Three Thousand Years immediately interesting, even as it probes the deepest feelings known to man in a way that’s unapologetically high-minded. Elba is predictably stellar too. His role is louder and more physical than Swinton’s eyebrow-burrowing professor, but moments of agony and euphoria are communicated with a gentleness that defines Miller’s entire film.
For a film shot entirely in Australia during the pandemic, Miller’s latest is a remarkably, convincingly globetrotting endeavour. Its scale feels truly universal and unrestricted, even as its production was anything but. The Australian director’s uncanny ability to deceive remains almost unrivaled by his peers. To three thousand more years of that.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. MGM/UAR will release Three Thousand Years of Longing in theaters on August 31, 2022.