[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
From the operatic, post-apocalyptic thrills of the Mad Max series to the musical whimsy of Happy Feet, George Miller’s career has always been built on a foundation of mythology and archetype (he was at one point even attached to helm a live-action adaptation of Justice League—a missed opportunity that feels increasingly tragic in direct proportion to the prevalence of the superhero genre). But in his most recent effort, Three Thousand Years of Longing, the power of storytelling makes the leap from subtext to central theme—and it’s all the more enchanting for its place of prominence.
Tilda Swinton plays Alithea, a narratologist that inadvertently becomes the protagonist of a modern-day fairytale following an encounter with an honest-to-goodness Djinn (an effortlessly seductive Idris Elba). Despite her fondness for folklore, our heroine is hardly pleased with her newfound starring role; indeed, her stubborn practicality and knowledge of tropes and symbolism make her reluctant accept any magical aid—especially when there are apparently no strings attached. Desperate to fulfill his obligation to his latest mistress—thus earning his freedom after millennia of incarceration—the Djinn appeals to her love of legends by reciting the epic of his own lonely existence. His rhetoric is profoundly persuasive, forcing Alithea to confront the specter of her unhappiness; contrary to her insistence that she is content in her solitude, she is just as much of a prisoner as her supernatural benefactor, trapped in a metaphorical bottle of self-imposed isolation and emotional emptiness.
The wish that results from this epiphany will irrevocably alter the trajectories of both characters’ lives.
As a consequence of its loose anthology structure, the movie’s plot is primarily guided by competing layers of voiceover narration. Most scholarly textbooks would claim that this is an unforgivable weakness; film is, after all, a visual medium. This argument, however, vastly underestimates Miller’s mastery of his craft: the imagery that he chooses to accompany the words far exceeds whatever the viewer’s imagination might evoke. He paints the screen with vibrant colors and mesmerizing shapes; his camera dances with the performers, avoiding formulaic shot/reverse shot framing in favor of bolder, more kinetic compositions; every edit and transition is precise, sculpting a poetic rhythm that rivals the work of Leone and Kurosawa.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is, in short, a cinematic tour de force from a 77-year-old director that is still decades away from passing his prime. I sincerely hope that Miller lives for another century; he clearly has countless more stories to tell—and few of his younger contemporaries are capable of spinning a yarn with such infectious enthusiasm.