Margaret Sixel

Three Thousand Years of Longing

04/09/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

First, a little bit about George Miller. I’m a big fan.

He is, of course, the Antipodean director who gave the world the Mad Max movies – and who, after an interval of twenty-seven years, did the near impossible by returning to the franchise and delivering what is arguably the finest action movie of 2015 – Mad Max: Fury Road. But wait, there’s more! What about The Witches of Eastwick? Brilliant film! And what about Babe? And, er… okay, I haven’t seen Happy Feet but it was a massive hit with the kids.

I guess what I’m saying is that Miller is no one-trick pony. And if nothing else, Three Thousand Years of Longing is proof of that. Co-written by Miller and based on a short story by AS Byatt, this is a film about the enduring power of storytelling. It wears its literary credentials with pride – indeed, the film is divided up into ‘chapters’ – and the result is enchanting in the most literal sense of the word.

Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a narratologist (it’s a real thing), who has devoted her life to the study of stories. At one point, she makes the brilliant observation that “all gods and monsters outlive their purpose and are reduced to the role of metaphor”. On a trip to Turkey, where she’s been booked to speak at a literary conference, she buys a souvenir at the old bazaar in Istanbul, an ancient glass bottle. Whilst attempting to clean it with an electric toothbrush, Alithea accidentally releases its occupant, The Djinn (Idris Elba), who has spent a lot of time locked up in a variety of similar vessels.

It isn’t long before he and Alithea are exchanging extracts from their respective life stories…

I love this film, which offers a magical, Arabian Nights-style odyssey through a series of exotic landscapes, peopled by a host of fascinating characters. It would be so easy to get this wrong, ‘othering’ the various magical creatures who stride through the ensuing adventures, but Miller never puts a foot wrong and there’s a delicious fluidity to John Seale’s epic cinematography and Margaret Sixel’s editing, which mean the unfolding stories are never allowed to stagnate. Elba gets to escape from lion-thumping duties (see Beast) to prove his acting chops, and Tilda Swinton is as delightfully enigmatic as ever.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” is a well known adage, but apparently you can, as The Djinn learns to his regret. Also, faithfulness is so often taken for granted by the people who receive it. One other thing: this may be the first movie I’ve seen where the COVID pandemic is visually referenced with crowds of people in an auditorium wearing face masks. This was a big event in world history and yet most film makers have chosen to ignore it. Why?

Three Thousand Years of Longing probably won’t put a huge amount of bums on seats (I suspect that it’s too thoughtful, too labyrinthine to be a big hitter), but it’s nevertheless a gorgeous, exciting slice of cinema that’s clearly the work of a director who, in his late seventies, is at the peak of his powers.

Next up, Furiosa! Can’t wait.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney