The last time George Miller had a film at Cannes Film Festival in 2015 he blew the roof off the Lumière with action classic Mad Max: Fury Road. The legendary director’s long-gestating follow-up, Three Thousand Years Of Longing, is unlikely to be greeted with quite such feverish approval, but will serve as an inventively fanciful and broadly enjoyable palette cleanser before Furiosa rides again.
In many ways Three Thousand Years... is everything Fury Road isn’t. Namely: incessantly talky and almost completely devoid of action. This is because, for a significant chunk of the film, the main characters – Tilda Swinton’s ‘narratologist’ Alithea, and Idris Elba’s pointy-eared mythological Djinn – are confined to an Istanbul hotel room, where Alitheia's lonely academic is attending a conference.
Discovering a curious bottle at the bottom of a Bazaar basket, Alithea releases the benevolent genie from its imprisonment, and is promised three wishes in return. To put her Monkey’s Paw concerns at ease, the Djinn tells Alithea the story of how he ended up in a glass-blown cell, a tale which spans dynasties, continents and millennia.
While true that Alithea and the Djinn spend a significant amount of time philosophizing in bathrobes ("We exist only if we are real to others," muses Alithea) each of the Djinn’s three or so tales transports the film far beyond the confines of the hotel room’s four walls. From the court of the Queen Of Sheba – a world of magic and myth made real – to the Ottoman Empire and 19th Century Turkey, each fable is an enchanting flight of fancy.
Three Thousand Years Of Longing is the kind of playful adult fairytale that’s all but extinct in the era of franchise filmmaking. As relayed by a game Elba, who appears singularly unafraid of occupying the exact middle ground between outrageously sexy and deeply silly, the Djinn’s stories serve as cautionary tales about desire, whether it be the unrequited love of another, the pursuit of knowledge or the simple longing for a better life. A hopeless romantic, the Djinn has ended up in so much trouble because he has a habit of falling for the women who release him. Alithea, meanwhile, “finds feelings through stories”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where the pair are heading.
But as a love story, Three Thousand Years… doesn’t allow its characters to develop the depth of emotion that we’re supposed to believe exists between them. Neither is it a particularly successful intellectual exercise – Alithea and the Djinn debate continually, but they’re surface-level meditations. The screenplay, written by Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore, isn’t short on ambition, doubling as a sweet ode to storytelling itself. Yet it throws up some honking dialogue – a prize to anyone who can make it through Elba inquiring "You want us to make lovecraft?" with a straight face.
It’s far more successful as an Arabian Nights-style collection of short stories, and its in these vibrant, fantastical flashback sequences that Miller’s visual invention comes to the fore. From a magical musical serenade performed with living instruments, to a sudden moment of phantasmagorical horror that evokes Carpenter’s The Thing, to the sight of a plus-sized harem of concubines composed and framed with the finesse of a baroque masterwork, Miller remains a wildly accomplished visualist. The VFX, it would appear by choice, fall well short of a photoreal threshold, a fact which only adds to the film’s storybook aesthetic.
Another oddball addition to Miller’s wildly eclectic filmography (who else can boast a CV with titles as diverse as The Road Warrior and Happy Feet 2?), Three Thousand Years Of Longing doesn’t entirely succeed on its own terms, but in its way is as formally ambitious and experimental as anything mad maestro Miller has committed to the screen across a 43-year career. By George!
Three Thousand Years Of Longing releases in the US on 31 August, but does not currently have a UK release date. Stick with Total Film for all the latest coverage from Cannes 2022 – check out our review of James Gray's Armageddon Time, through that link.