The glib response to George “Mad Max” Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is suggesting that only Terry Gilliam should be making Terry Gilliam “epics.” That assertion carries the message that it’s sprawling, fantastical and ambitious and that there’s a decent chance it doesn’t quite work.
But Miller’s earned a filmmaker’s benefit of the doubt. Every movie’s he’s made is at least “about something,” from the apocalyptic environmental/political warnings of the “Mad Max” movies, to the cautionary parables for kids that were “Happy Feet” animated films.
This strange and quirky tale is far more somber than you’d expect. A “narratologist” stumbles into a Djinn or genie by popping open a bottle she buys in exotic Istanbul. That leads to a movie-long debate that ponders aging, loneliness and the essence of happiness even as it never quite wrestles with the question the djinn (Idris Elba) poses to the “happy,” divorced and self-described “fulfilled” academic, played by Tilda Swinton.
“What is your heart’s desire?”
Miller’s film, based on an A.S. Byatt short story, is long and feels incomplete, weighty without much psychological or intellectual heft, colorful but rarely dazzling and never whimsical enough. It’s like a Terry Gilliam (“Brazil,” “Adventures of Baron Munchausen”) take on “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Because Alithea, the enterprising English academic expert in the commonalities that folk tales around the world share, isn’t having this “three wishes” business. She knows that “there is NO story about wishes that is not cautionary,” aka “Be careful what you wish for” She knows “all the stories about trickster djinn.”
And as the djinn, who’s been locked in assorted bottles and such for who epochs of time, tries to explain things from his point of view, what “no wishes” or the wrong wish might mean for him, the academic feels free to interrupt with the occasional “Oh, I KNOW where this is going.” Because she does.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is mostly these two in an Istanbul hotel room, debating the nature of fate, happiness and history by sharing (mostly his) flashbacks of their lives, which start with the djinn losing his true cross-species love, Sheba (Aamito Lagum) — a crafty, sexy queen known (to him) for her famously furry legs — to the persistent King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad).
As the djinn relates each tale of his “incarcerations” back in a bottle, we visit Byzantine Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul, all designed to sway Alithea’s decision about whether or not to make her wishes, or find some sort of escape clause.
And the viewer, watching the realms of the djinn’s experience give way to Alithea’s more modern wizardry, notices that the flashbacks grow murkier and less elaborate, the “relationship” strains and the storytellers try to wrestle their tale into something relevant for our divided, perilous world.
The first half of “Three Thousand Years” is the most engaging, with our narratologist explaining to a conference that “Mythology is what we knew back then, science is what we know…so far.”
But once the djinn’s out of the bottle, the film takes on an inscrutable mantle, mostly thanks to the muted emotions of the writing and the performances. The “djinn” effect has its digital elements, but once the vapor in the bottle has shrunken down to a manageable size — half again as big as Alithea (Forced perspective?) — basically the film becomes a two-hander, two muted performances tentatively waltzing around one another in an effort to come to mutual understandings, and more.
I couldn’t help but think Miller, for all the effects and occasional Gilliam-grotesquerie (a harem of absurdly corpulent Ottoman concubines) of this film, is making a statement on the way life shrinks to fit and closes in around you as you age. He’s 77 and maybe this dream project — like Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” like Barry Levinson’s “Toys” or Orson Welles’ “The Big Brass Ring” or “The Other Side of the Wind” — is meant to be valedictory but fated to be sad and reflective and a letdown.
For all the power the djinn has, he is never not hemmed in by “rules” and the threat of entombment and forced isolation. He wants to satisfy his needs, but they come second to those he serves, and he’s not enough of a “trickster” to ensure his “heart’s desire.” That’s life — disappointment. You can’t three-wishes that away.
Whatever the source short story is about, a London interlude which involves Alithea’s co-habitation with a Black djinn and facing off with aged “bigot” neighbors is plainly about today, and one can read Swinton’s own concerns into her complaints. It feels shoehorned in.
The leads don’t really make their characters move “considering” the other into anything we can warm up to.
Whatever Miller was getting at, not egging his leading players into something warmer, sexier, lighter and funnier seems like a blunder. Not casting famous faces as his assorted historical figures makes them largely forgettable.
The movie around Swinton and Elba suggests that strife and struggle and prejudice and loneliness are eternal. How might a creature trapped in a bottle for hundreds of years at a time spend that time? Stuck in memory, trying not too hard to hate himself for the fate he suffers.
“I am just an idiot who has been extravagantly unlucky.”
Surely that’s not how Miller sees himself.
Still, a great — if not prolific — director of popular entertainments with a message has earned the benefit of the doubt, and our attention and willingness to mull over what he shows us. But it’s hard to look at his magic lamp movie and not notice that it’s not just the djinn who has no clothes.
Rating: R for some sexual content, graphic nudity (LOL) and brief violence
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Aamito Lagum, Matteo Bocelli, Nicolas Mouawad and Lachy Hulme
Credits: Directed by George Miller, scripted by George Miller and Augusta Gore, based on a short story by A.S. Byatt. An MGM release.
Running time: 1:48