by ESTHER ZUCKERMAN
THE easy formulas of most blockbusters have never appealed to the Australian director George Miller. His films can be deceptively simple yet are frequently bizarre; often nightmarish, they can turn surprisingly sentimental.
One constant, however, is that they overflow with a creative energy that’s rare when box offices are awash in superhero chum. Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” turned a two-hour chase through a dystopian desert into a car-fuelled symphony, transforming a dormant franchise into an Oscar-winning US$375 million (RM1.67 billion) global smash.
Miller wrote and produced the beloved family hit “Babe”, then turned its sequel into a haunting underworld adventure. His tap-dancing penguin “Happy Feet” movies made more than US$500 million and offered a climate change warning buried in cute animal plots.
Now, with his first feature since 2015, he’s made another movie that defies easy categorisation.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” (which debuts on Aug 26) is a hotel room romance that also happens to be a CGI spectacle, starring a giant Idris Elba and a buttoned-up Tilda Swinton. Based on the 1994 short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by English novelist AS Byatt, it’s unlikely to match the financial success of Miller’s other work, but it still confirms his status as the wild genius of pop cinema.
Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a “narratologist”: Someone who studies narrative structure. In a bit of a wink, she provides a voice-over to the action with a storybook cadence and thick northern English accent. She constructs her journey like a fairy tale: The movie opens as she travels to Istanbul while besieged by strange visions.
In the city’s Grand Bazaar, she picks out a trinket, a small blue-patterned bottle. When she washes it in the sink at her hotel, out pops a spirit in the form of Elba, whose oversize body barely fits between the walls and seems to emit a shimmering vapour.
At first, they can only communicate in ancient Greek, but he quickly picks up English, absorbing it from the television, the existence of which initially befuddles him.
As with nearly all tales about jinni, the Djinn has an offer for Alithea: She gets three wishes and he’ll be freed. But she knows there’s a catch. To persuade her, he tells his own story of winding up in captivity for eons. So begins the first of three spectacle-laden flashbacks.
Miller plunges the audience back in time to ornate and richly colored worlds, bathed in a gold tint. His camera has a kaleidoscopic aura, traipsing through courts and baths and rooms coated in sable fur.
Mystic elements — including the Djinn himself — lurk in corners as mortals act out sagas almost in pantomime. Behind the score echo generations of voices.
We see the Djinn as the Queen of Sheba’s lover before she rejects him for King Solomon. He then orbits the court of Suleiman the Magnificent during the Ottoman Empire, first in service to a young slave girl in love with a prince, then, 100 years later, to two royal brothers who’ll doom him further.
Last, in the 19th century, off the Bosporus, he finds himself captivated by a woman named Zefir, a genius with no education who yearns for knowledge. He grants her wishes, but in his ardour he loses his purpose, once again confining himself to a tiny vessel — the one that Alithea picks out in the bazaar.
Alithea remains steadfast in her scepticism through most of his tales, but she begins to identify their common ground: Loneliness. The Djinn has been cursed with it throughout his centuries roaming the Earth, much like she has chosen solitude after a failed marriage. It’s with this realisation that she makes a wish.
But Swinton’s character, as it turns out, is the one at odds with the rest of the movie. The Djinn’s backstory is rendered with such care and splendour that hers is thin by comparison.
We want her to give herself over to him — mainly because Elba is so appealing — but such a choice never fully makes sense with the severe, reticent persona she’s crafted. Miller’s magic fades as Alithea takes over the movie and the audience is left trying to untangle her motivations from beneath Swinton’s artifice.
It’s also hard to ignore that “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is, in essence, about a magical Black man beholden to an uptight White woman. Yet, Elba’s performance is so tender and sensual that, by the time you remember he’s a trickster spirit, you’re already enthralled.
Miller’s unrepentant originality also makes it easy to surrender, even when he’s playing around with intentionally derivative tropes such as the movie’s overt Orientalism. Like Alithea he’s a devotee of the very idea of storytelling, but he bends familiar narratives to his own will.
The result is a film that uses its own clichés to undermine expectations, turning age-old tropes into thrilling fantasy. — Bloomberg / Pics source MGM