Three Thousand Years of Longing, review: Idris Elba may play a genie, but this film lacks magic

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Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Three Thousand Years of Longing - Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc
Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Three Thousand Years of Longing - Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc

If granted three wishes by a benevolent genie, how many women – and men, for that matter – might start with a five-star suite in Istanbul with panoramic views of the Bosphorus and Idris Elba in a towelling robe? Well, in Three Thousand Years of Longing, that’s all thrown in gratis: Elba is the genie who’s doing the granting. The wonkily freewheeling new film from Mad Max creator George Miller, which premiered last night at Cannes, stars Elba as an ageless djinn and Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie, an academic from the north of England who unwittingly uncorks his bottle during a visit to the Turkish city.

Alithea is attending a conference on narratology: the study of stories, and the ways in which they reframe our experience of the world. Elba’s djinn has plenty to share, having spent the last three millennia either serving tricky masters and mistresses or eavesdropping on their scandalous activities while cooped up inside his golden flask. His recounting of these memories transports his audience – Swinton and us – into sparklingly rendered ancient lands where princes wage war and frolic with concubines, and brilliant young women are trapped in towers and their genius withheld from the world. Every so often Miller returns us to the hotel room, where Alithea tries to parse these narratives for meaning while worrying that her own heart’s desires, if realised, might also see her come unstuck. “There’s no story about wishing that’s not a cautionary tale,” she points out, while the film gently suggests via various visual and verbal clues that perhaps the whole thing might be a fairy tale, spun by Alithea to make sense of her earthly regrets.

The script was adapted by Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore from the AS Byatt novella The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, and then shot in Australia during the pandemic. The end result is almost impossible not to root for. Miller’s attempts to use lavish visual effects as a vehicle for a story of flesh-and-blood romantic connection, featuring actual passion and loss – and, shock horror, naked human bodies doing all the things naked human bodies do – makes it feel like the director’s anti-superhero movie. (There’s a witty early shot of Swinton delivering a presentation about the modern-day counterparts of mythic figures like the djinn, in which she finds herself sandwiched in a tiny gap between two enormous group portraits of various Marvel and DC personages.)

Alas, both halves are compromised. While Swinton and Elba make smooth work of the fairy-tale-toned dialogue, they simply lack the chemistry to make their tryst convince as romance. And the fantasy flashbacks too often sink into chintz: there are scenes here which somehow simultaneously resemble 1960s Ladybird children’s book illustrations and PlayStation games. While filing out of the Grand Théâtre Lumière last night after the film’s Cannes premiere, I overheard someone enthusiastically describing it as Miller’s version of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s 2011 Palme d’Or winner. But it’s every bit as much his Lovely Bones.

As the man behind four Mad Max films (and with a fifth on the way), Miller is cinema’s premier apocalyptician; he’s also one of its leading eclecticists, having also director Babe: Pig in the City, the Happy Feet films, Lorenzo’s Oil and The Witches of Eastwick. Three Thousand Years of Longing is the first of Miller’s films to feel like the work of the man who made all the others. And there are passages of real mischief and amazement, such as the sequence in which an heir to the throne cavorts in his sable-lined chambers with a harem of entirely nude, resplendently plus-sized women. No other major filmmaker would dare suggest this kind of imagery was beautiful – let alone segue into using one of said women’s bottoms for simultaneous comic and dramatic effect. Regrettably, though, this proves to be far from the only bum note.

108 min. Screening at the Cannes Film Festival. A UK release has yet to be announced.

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