Three Thousand Years of Longing review – Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in Mad Max: fairy overload

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Grant the Mad Max fans a magic wish and they’d conjure up a new film from George Miller, right here and right now, not a moment to lose. It’s probably what they’ve been wanting since Fury Road trundled off into the desert back in 2015. Now their prayers have been answered, God help them, as Miller arrived at the Cannes film festival to uncork a picture he describes as “the anti-Mad Max”: a loquacious Arabian Nights-style fantasy about the relationship between an ancient genie and a London academic. These people really should have read the small print. Every magic wish comes with a consequence, a cost.

Adapted from a 1994 AS Byatt novella, Three Thousand Years of Longing casts Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie, a professor of narratology, telling stories about stories. Alone in her Istanbul hotel suite, she opens a glass bottle and out hops the Djinn (Idris Elba in pointy ears), vowing to deliver her heart’s desire. He’s spent millennia in confinement and has lots to say for himself. And so the pair sit in white towelling bathrobes as he recounts his various adventures and incarcerations, telling Alithea about the Queen of Sheba and the Ottoman Empire while periodically chivvying her to come up with a wish. The professor, perhaps for the first time in her life, is stumped. “This wishing is a hazardous business,” she complains.

Miller, a keen student of narratology himself, loves stripping stories to their bones and recycling the parts to make something fresh. Films such as Happy Feet or the beguiling Babe: Pig in the City work best when viewed as fairytales. Even postmodern Mad Max spins your classic hero’s journey, the director’s version of a western, Greek myth or samurai tale. On this occasion, though, the conceit feels overthought, more subtext than text, as if the film still has one slippered foot in Alithea’s lit-theory seminar. Stories about stories can be lightbulbs, starbursts. But they require more mischief and abandon than this one can muster; possibly more obvious chemistry between its stately protagonists, too. Alithea thinks that the Djinn is a trickster although he swears blind that he’s not. She’s too wary, too schooled. She’s learned that every wish-fulfilment fantasy is merely a cautionary tale with its make-up on.

None of which is to suggest that the film itself is a monkey’s paw, a wish that boomerangs back as the worst thing in the world. Three Thousand Years of Longing is guileless, open-hearted, like an antiquarian bookseller’s dream of The Thief of Baghdad. It’s so defiantly out of step with fashion that there’s finally something faintly glorious about it. At the age of 77, flushed from the success of a 50-year career, Miller has earned the right to make whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to hell with the fans who demand more road warrior movies. I think that he made this one just for him. I suspect it’s turned out exactly as he hoped.

• Three Thousand Years of Longing screened at the Cannes film festival.

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