Idris Elba may play a genie, but this film lacks magic

If a benevolent spirit were to grant three wishes, how many women – and men, by the way – could start with a five-star suite in Istanbul with panoramic views of the Bosphorus and Idris Elba in a terry robe? Well, in Three Thousand Years of Longing it’s all free: Elba is the spirit that does the granting. The shaky, free-rolling new film from Mad Max creator George Miller, which premiered in Cannes last night, stars Elba as the timeless genie and Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie, an academic from the north of England who unknowingly steals his while on a visit to Turkey Bottle uncorked city.

Alithea attends a conference on narratology: the study of stories and the ways they reshape our experience of the world. Elba’s Djinn has much to share, having spent the last three millennia either serving scheming masters and mistresses or eavesdropping on their scandalous activities while cooped up in his golden flask. His narration of these memories transports his audience – Swinton and us – to glitteringly rendered ancient lands where princes make war and frolic with concubines and brilliant young women are trapped in towers and their genius is kept from the world. From time to time, Miller brings us back to the hotel room, where Alithea attempts to analyze these narratives for meaning, while worrying that her own heart’s desires, if realized, could derail her too. “There’s no story about wishing, that wouldn’t be a cautionary tale,” she insists, while the film gently suggests, through various visual and verbal cues, that the whole thing may be a fairy tale spun by Alithea to appease her earthly regrets to give meaning.

The screenplay was adapted by Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore from AS Byatt’s novella The Djinn in the Eye of the Nightingale and then filmed in Australia during the pandemic. The end result is almost impossible not to root. Miller’s attempts to use lavish visual effects as a vehicle for a tale of flesh-and-blood romantic connections that show genuine passion and loss – and, shock horror, naked human bodies doing all the things naked human bodies do it feel like the director’s anti-superhero film. (There’s a funny early shot of Swinton giving a presentation on the modern counterparts of mythical figures like the Djinn, in which she finds herself wedged in a tiny gap between two huge group portraits of various Marvel and DC personalities.)

Unfortunately, both halves are compromised. While Swinton and Elba smoothly handle the fairytale-like dialogue, they simply lack the chemistry to make their tryst convince as a romance. And the fantasy flashbacks too often drown in chintz: there are scenes here that somehow evoke 1960s Ladybug children’s book illustrations and PlayStation games at the same time. As I left the Grand Théâtre Lumière last night after the film’s Cannes premiere, I overheard someone enthusiastically refer to it as Miller’s version of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s 2011 Palme d’Or winner. But so are his Lovely Bones.

The man behind four Mad Max films (and with a fifth in the pipeline), Miller is cinema’s finest apocalyptic; He is also one of the leading eclectics, having also directed 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 that feels like the work of the man who made all the others. And there are passages of genuine mischievousness and wonder, such as the sequence in which an heir to the throne cavorts in his sable-lined chambers with a harem of fully nude, radiantly oversized women. No other great filmmaker would dare claim that these kinds of images are beautiful – let alone use one of these women’s bottoms for simultaneous comic and dramatic effects. Unfortunately, this turns out to be far from the only bum note.

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

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2022/05/21/three-thousand-years-longing-review-idris-elba-may-play-genie/ Idris Elba may play a genie, but this film lacks magic


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