Thursday, August 25, 2022

Three Thousand Years of Longing is a flawed, but grand exploration of storytelling


Three Thousand Years of Longing may hinge its plot on wishes, but this is primarily a cinematic ode to the power of stories. The way we tell them or the types of characters who inhabit them may change over the centuries, but human beings are always entranced by a good story. Like so much of life, stories offer up a paradox. They're a retreat from the world we inhabit, yet the best ones tend to remind us of our experiences in everyday reality. There's often a very thin line separating the fantastical and the mundane, no matter what era you live in. Those seemingly disparate forces are comfortable bedfellows in director George Miller's new movie Three Thousand Years of Longing, which features wraparound segments reminiscent of My Dinner with Andre along with expansive flashbacks evocative of Cloud Atlas.

In this adaptation of A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (penned by Miller and Augusta Gore), Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is an expert in narratives and literature heading off to a conference in Istanbul. While there, she stumbles on a trinket that contains a Djinn (Idris Elba). This being is prepared to grant Binnie a trio of wishes, but she's read a story or two in her life about wishes and is convinced only trouble will follow any wishes she makes. Since Djinn needs to grant three wishes to a mortal person to finally end his existence on Earth, he proceeds to recount to Binnie the stories of his various existences. This is all done in the hopes of making her see the problems with wishes they can now avoid. "We can control this story," he tells her, though this Djinn, more than anyone, should know that stories, much like people, can never be fully controlled.

With so much uncertainty plaguing the world of big-screen feature-length filmmaking every day, there's an undeniable thrill in seeing George Miller toss out an oddball entity like Three Thousand Years of Longing into the world. The very existence of this film seems to be a refutation to the idea that only pre-established properties and all-ages fare can now play at your local Cinemark. Of course, Longing is far from a perfect movie, but even its rough edges speak highly to what a personal and unique creation this is. Like when he decided to make Mad Max: Fury Road or the quietly devastating kid's movie Babe: Pig in the City, Miller is swinging for the fences here rather than sticking with the tidy and the familiar. This filmmaker would rather make something that's occasionally messy but memorable rather than a feature that's thoroughly cohesive but generic.

If there is one pressing issue here, it's that Miller's dialogue-reliant storytelling sensibilities are not quite as strong as his narrative impulses leaning heavily on visuals (as seen in Fury Road). Narration from Idris Elba makes up a good chunk of the screentime in Three Thousand Years of Longing while our lead human character also has recurring bouts of narration. At their best, these voice-overs serve as a perfect complement to the on-screen imagery. These words can capture a reflective melancholy over past transgressions or romantic bonding that could never be properly understood as these events were happening. In other instances, though, all those words are in service of ideas that could've been even more potently expressed in exclusively visual terms. Some dialogue exchanges, like a conversation in an abruptly introduced adversarial relationship between Binnie and her neighbors, also suffer from some strange phrasing.

An overdose of narration and occasionally clumsy dialogue cannot come anywhere close to suffocating what does work in Three Thousand Years of Longing, though. Chiefly, this is a film packed to the gills with imagination on a visual level. Splendor is the name of the game here, with the various time periods allowing the set and costume designers free reign to indulge in eye candy adhering to a range of visual influences. Bright colors drape the screen while, best of all, Miller and Gore's screenplay freely indulges in inexplicable imagery and details that make you immediately want to rewatch the movie to make sure you saw everything properly. I could've sworn I saw a monkey with tentacles just chilling in a scene where King Solomon tries to woo the Queen of Sheba while another scene has a humanoid seahorse just poke its head out of the shadows and then retreat into the darkness. You never know what unusual elements will pop out around the corner in Longing, even when the camera is just focused on Swinton and Elba chatting in a hotel room.

The willingness of Three Thousand Years of Longing to engage in the inexplicable without cynicism or wry winks to the audience to dilute the strangeness speaks to how much Miller and company want this movie to fit into the grand tradition of myths and fables. Binnie even says in her opening narration that the only way she can make her story coherent to viewers is by telling it "like a fairy tale." This carries through the whole movie and its approach to not just the fantastical, but also its grand displays of emotion or equally sizable depictions of sorrow. There's no desire to ground everything in realism and that suits the confident filmmaking tendencies of Miller beautifully. The sweeping visual scope and unabashedly sentimental qualities of the romantic elements may not work for every viewer, but they sure won me over more often than not.

George Miller has dabbled in the world of mythology and fables for his entire career, particularly when it comes to his Mad Max movies (which do play like post-apocalyptic parables). Now he's gone to the very source of this style of storytelling with Three Thousand Years of Longing, which looks at the way human foibles, the power of narratives, and feelings of passionate connection are eternal. Realizing that scope does result in some noticeable shortcomings, but even those are at least indicative of Longing trying something new and grand. It's not a new classic or anything like that, but Three Thousand Years of Longing is still a remarkable exploration of the power of stories.

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