'Three Thousand Years of Longing': A Fantasy Story About Stories
How does someone follow one of the biggest successes of their career? For most people, they would likely double down on what worked well the last time, and maybe even try to outdo themselves. For others, they might decide to get more experimental and explore new territory. And then there's George Miller. While his latest film, Three Thousand Years of Longing leans towards being more experimental, it feels like it belongs in a class of its own. The film is Miller's follow-up to Mad Max: Fury Road, a bombastic, visually-stunning, and beloved action film, so it makes sense for people to expect something along those lines walking into Three Thousand Years of Longing. But what George Miller gives us with this film is quite the opposite. It is a more meditative, quieter affair compared to Fury Road, and will likely bewilder viewers who were expecting something more intense. It has moments that allows Miller to give into his more maximalist tendencies, but the film as a whole is rather sweet and tender, and functions more as an examination of human desire, love, and the art of storytelling.
The film focuses on Alithea Bennie (played by Tilda Swinton), a lonely college professor and Narratologist who is obsessed with stories. In the film's beginning, she travels to Istanbul for a conference, and purchases an antique bottle at a bazaar. Later, in her hotel room, she accidentally opens the bottle, which releases a Djinn (played by Idris Elba) who offers to grant Alithea three wishes. The two then begin to form an unlikely bond as the Djinn tells her stories of how he became trapped in the bottle. Much of the film is devoted to these stories, which puts the Djinn among historical figures, such as the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and Suleiman the Magnificent. Some viewers might be turned off by how much the film spends on these stories, but it makes sense given that the film is literally about storytelling. In an early scene of the film, Alithea is at a conference and sees a vision of a mysterious spirit. At the same time, a person is giving a speech about stories, myths, and how we as humans interact with them. This encapsulates the film nicely, as Miller mixes spectacle with substance in a rather effective way to explore stories and storytelling. Some of what he is trying to say doesn't fully add up (at least not on this initial viewing) but it still connected with me for the most part.
What resonated with me the most was how the film explores the concept of desire. To paraphrase a line from the film, any story about Djinns and wishes usually ends up being a cautionary tale. This is largely due to the idea that when someone is given the opportunity to achieve their greatest wishes, they tend to either make wishes that ultimately come back to bite them, or they become so overcome by their greatest desires that it leads to catastrophe. Through the stories that the Djinn tells Alithea, we see how big of a role desire plays in how they unfold, which carries over into the main plot of the film. Alithea claims to have no true desires, but it is clear that she is repressing them. Between all of the stories that she has studied and her own life experience, it is clear that she is afraid of being hurt or becoming another cautionary tale. So much is said about desire through her character alone, but the way the film explores this in the Djinn's stories as well truly drives the point home and is simply fascinating to consider.
I have always been of the opinion that George Miller is an excellent director, but he is a little more hit or miss when it comes to his writing. Don't get me wrong, he's still a good writer in my opinion, but he does have a tendency to favor style over substance, and he can be a little incoherent from time to time. While the latter still applies in certain moments of Longing, he balances style and substance much better than he has in the past. There are some elaborate setpieces and visual effects, but it feels a bit more reserved compared to his most of his other work. Of course, the pandemic definitely played a part in this, but the restraint works in the film's favor. It allows the film's themes to come across clearer and for Miller to emphasize some of the quieter moments to great effect. My biggest gripe with the film is that the third act does drag a little too long. It's as if it has 4 or 5 endings total, but I can't be too mad at it since it does ultimately end on a great note. Miller co-wrote the film with his daughter, Augusta Gore, so it is possible that a lot of why the script works as well as it does is thanks to her. Regardless, it is one of the stronger scripts that he has directed, even if it does have some issues here and there. As for his direction, he is great as always, and delivers what might be his sweetest and most emotionally resonant film to date. His creative flourishes are well-used, and allow the film to be a singular cinematic experience. It might not be what I was expecting, but it still managed to connect with me on a rather deep level.
So much of the film hinges on Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba's characters, and both are tremendous here. Swinton once again showcases her seemingly innate ability to immerse herself in her characters, and captures the loneliness and anxiety of Alithea almost effortlessly. It is a bit more of a reserved performance from her, but it is also a fully committed one that allows the character to bloom over the course of the film. Elba is a great complement to her, as he is able to show a great deal of strength and presence over the runtime. His character is the most fascinating in the film, partially because he is a Djinn, but also because he has an energy about him that is gentle, yet powerful. You can't help but be entranced by the stories he tells, and you truly feel for the character as a result. This element is crucial to the film as a whole, and Elba absolutely nails it. I was pleasantly surprised by the chemistry between Swinton and Elba, as they aren't two actors that I would think to pair together. Even in the film, they are a slightly strange duo, but they give the film what it needs, both individually and together.
Considering that this is a George Miller film, it comes as no surprise that it looks fantastic. Miller is known for creating a distinct visual style in each of his films, and is not afraid to take some big swings in this department. It helps that he has a great creative team on most of his films, and this one is no exception. The film has an intriguing look to it, one that is brought to life by John Seale's excellent cinematography. It's clear that he is a great match for Miller, as the two previously collaborated Lorenzo's Oil and Mad Max: Fury Road. Seale is able to capture the imaginative elements that Miller brings to the table so well, and turns them into something so fresh and unique. The VFX team on this film is also doing some great work, and create some memorable and eye-catching effects that look amazing, especially on the big screen. I also have to shout out the excellent score from Tom Holkenborg, which takes influence from the film's Turkish setting, and underscores the film beautifully.
To call George Miller an unconventional filmmaker is a bit of an understatement. He has a rather diverse filmography, and tends to subvert audience expectations, for better or worse. With Three Thousand Years of Longing, he continues this streak by delivering something that is unexpected, yet feels perfectly in line with his work. It may not be the absolute spectacle that Fury Road was, but it is also not trying to be that. It is clear that Miller is more concerned with what is going on under the surface, and explores the wants and needs of his characters in a rather tender way. It is such a contemplative film that tackles human desires in such an intriguing way, while also weaving in some meta elements in regards to stories and storytelling. This film is sure to divide audiences, and will likely disappoint those who are coming in expecting another Fury Road, but I was quite touched by this film and loved it quite a bit. It's the type of strange, bold film that is practically tailor-made for me, and one that spoke to me more than I was expecting it to. It may not end up being the phenomenon that Fury Road was, but it still manages to solidify George Miller as one of our most daring filmmakers working today.