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film review

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in director George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing.Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

Directed by George Miller

Written by George Miller and Augusta Gore, based on the short story by A.S. Byatt

Starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba

Classification R; 108 minutes

Opens in theatres Aug. 26

Critic’s pick

Given the famously troubled histories of his productions, any George Miller movie should be greeted like a minor miracle. But those hoping that the Australian director’s new fantasia Three Thousand Years of Longing might be an adrenaline-juiced spectacle akin to his most recent film, 2015′s famously gonzo Mad Max: Fury Road, should buckle up for a wild ride of … quietly checked expectations.

While epic in ambition and unchecked in spatter-the-wall aesthetics, Three Thousand is a chamber piece writ large, a two-hander that crosses centuries and lands and realities but also mostly takes place in a single hotel room, with the biggest on-screen explosion being the intensely smouldering chemistry between its two stars, Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba. But just because Three Thousand doesn’t feature a flame-spewing guitarist named The Doof Warrior doesn’t mean that it isn’t as fascinating and enchanting (and delightfully messy) a creation as Fury Road.

Adapting a short story by the famously intertextual British author A.S. Byatt (Possession), Miller’s film sets itself up with one gigantic challenge: to tell a story about the power of storytelling. An overwhelming riff on everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Chaucer, Shakespeare and One Thousand and One Nights (one of Miller’s first images is a brief shot of a plane splashed with the name “Scheherazade Airlines”), Three Thousand opens with famed narrative scholar Alithea (Swinton) travelling to Istanbul for a narratology conference.

A single, childless woman who finds comfort in the stories that we tell one another instead of the one that her own solitary life is inevitably writing all the while, Alithea seems to want for nothing in her life. She is, perhaps protesting too much, perfectly content and happy. But then she brings a dusty bottle that she bought in a Turkish market back to her hotel suite, and is suddenly greeted by Elba’s gigantic, pointy-eared djinn (or genie, for those more familiar with Aladdin) who is thrilled to finally be released from captivity – so long as Alithea makes three wishes to keep him out of his blown-glass prison. But given that Alithea knows just how these kinds of monkey’s-paw wish-fulfilment stories tend to play out across eons and cultures, she begins to test the djinn’s intentions. This compels the creature to offer a super-sized tale of his own: how he spent the past three thousand years falling in and out of love, and how a single wish can change everything.

The resulting narrative is doled out in a chapter-by-chapter structure that is always visually entrancing, but occasionally thrifty when it comes to its thematic and emotional underpinnings. Elba’s magnificently sturdy performance ensures that every word his djinn utters remains completely, fantastically compelling. As does Miller’s grandiose imagery of Ottoman strongholds, bloodied battlefields, and Da Vinci-accented castles, which impress even when it’s clear that the director’s CGI budget wasn’t nearly as large as he might’ve originally envisioned. But there are infrequent pangs of emptiness accompanying the djinn’s story, with Miller and his co-writer Augusta Gore almost frightened of letting one vignette overpower the other.

The film’s structure crumbles just a little bit more once Alithea and the djinn leave her hotel room, at which point the filmmakers expect their audience to have formed a deeply emotional investment in their relationship that just hasn’t been properly established. The grand love story that Three Thousand insists remains in the heart of its tale just isn’t quite as developed as Alithea herself might expect – a bitter irony for a movie that has been up to this point insisting that a well-told story can change lives, if not the world.

Still, Miller’s go-for-broke visuals and his stars’ fiercely committed work allow Three Thousand to speed by on wit, energy, and gushy, bleeding-heart passion. Alithea, narrating her own tale, kicks things off by telling her audience that they might not believe what they are about to see and hear, which is fine by her since she knows that it did in fact happen. Similarly, we might not believe that Miller absolutely succeeded in his own storytelling goals, but it is enough to know that he reached for something special, something grand. And if it’s a real enough achievement for him, then it should be for us, too.

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