George Miller is known as one of the supreme action directors, thanks to the Mad Max series, but his new film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, isn’t his first detour from the hyperkinetic road movie. There was Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), an unusual family drama with a medical theme involving a painful combination of triumph and defeat. A sick boy’s parents made a medical breakthrough, but it was of more benefit to other afflicted children than to him. That film gave Miller the chance to work with a powerful actress (Susan Sarandon). It wasn’t easy to manifest strong female presences in the universe of Mad Max, and Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity in Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was as close as Miller got until the formidable Furiosa (Charlize Theron) made her appearance in Fury Road (2015).
Tilda Swinton, the star of Three Thousand Years of Longing, could hardly be more different from Sarandon (normally cast for her earthiness). Swinton has spent much of her career at the ethereal end of the acting spectrum, though capable of being downright sweaty in different ways in Michael Clayton and The Beach. In the new film she is no more than modestly embodied as Alithea Binnie, a narratologist arriving in Istanbul to address a conference. The costume designer (Kym Barrett) has made sure that Althea gathers into herself all the warm colors on offer in the first part of the film, establishing in visual terms that a solitary life spent among other people’s stories can be a full one.
Swinton’s performance is characteristically full of detail, everything thought through without seeming calculated. When she arrives at her hotel she is told by her hosts that they have a surprise for her. Althea’s expression is subtly eager rather than merely a polite, though most adults – and many children – have learned that other people’s idea of an unexpected pleasure is not always yours. She still expects good things from the world. (It’s fine – she has been given the room Agatha Christie was staying in when she wrote Murder on the Orient Express.)
When Alithea picks up a glass bottle as a memento in the Grand Bazaar and innocently rubs it – while using her electric toothbrush to clean off the encrustations of time – a Djinn appears offering, and in fact requiring, the statutory three wishes. The Djinn is played by Idris Elba, who made his name with the gritty physicality of his playing, and somehow this continues to be true even when, as here, it is his voice that does most of the work. The Djinn has a chevron of red fur on his chin and a notch cut or bitten out of his ear, something that suggests an alley cat willingness to scrap. He has a body that is an idealization of Elba’s, and he is both naked and decent, with special-effects clothing swathing him tightly below the waist, as if it flowed smoothly out of his flesh.
Althea is briefly alarmed when the Djinn appears, and proposes to close her eyes and count to three so that he can dematerialize. It doesn’t work, and she continues counting, but one eyelid flickers half open, as if she was a child cheating at hide-and-seek, indicating an appetite for joining in a game. From this point on, though, the Djinn is in the driver’s seat of the story, and the color balance of the film shifts. Now narratologist and Djinn wear white terrycloth dressing gowns while he recounts his history and his entanglements with women, elaborating gaudy arabesques of narrative. His dressing gown is split at the seams from where he briefly showed annoyance, in the style of the Incredible Hulk. She wears a towel on her head, turban-style. The relationship between them is somewhere between a pas deux and a duel, with the narratologist trying to find a way of resolving the three-wishes setup that doesn’t trap either of them. Is the Djinn a trickster? He says not … but then he would say that, wouldn’t he?
The director’s previous film based on a work of fiction, The Witches of Eastwickreleased in 1987, was a pumped-up, steroidal travesty of a subtle original. Three Thousand Years of Longing is vastly more respectful (of AS Byatt’s original story), but assumes that oral storytelling and modern cinematic style are not only compatible but mutually enriching. Almost every sequence suggests the opposite.
The details that a folk tale omits are not missing, but there to be supplied by the reader or listener. Such an abstention from clutter isn’t an option in a film, yet filling in what are not blanks can seem like a chore, even when it’s not a distraction. Miller and his production designer, Roger Ford, crowd the screen right up to its edges with bustling seraglis, hammams, palaces, without ever suggesting a world people might actually live in. For a sultan’s younger brother in a folk tale to be shut away, along with the vast women whose bounteous flesh he so much appreciates, in a room entirely lined with sable, is a lovely image of oppressive luxury. When the room has to be realized on the screen, and the inspection hatch through which the captive is spied turns out to be lined with its own little rectangle of black fur, the results only the illusion they are intended to bolster. It’s hard to imagine a Turkish artisan trimming the pelt to fit, all too easy to visualize a special-effects subcontractor using a software package to tweak the lie of individual hairs.
Convincing computer-generated effects are now so standard that the word “special” in “special effects” hardly seems to apply. The solution adopted here, of supplying more and more detail, seems to miss the point. Where the oral tradition is at liberty to simply say “There followed a terrible battle”, the film director and his crew feel required to provide examples of carnage. In this case viewers are shown a charging horse with a spear sticking out of its flank, which by sheer fluke knocks down a warrior – something that would be a rich detail in, say, a Kurosawa film, but in this context has nothing to do with anything. Narrative is a thread looping round itself to produce larger shapes. Computer imagery is a mill that can be programmed to churn out digital tapestry to cover a wall of any surface area. The appropriate folk-tale image for such relentless proliferation of imagery would be the enchanted mops of the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasiainanimate slave labor incapable of knowing when the task has been done, or even what the task is, flooding the screen with relentless detail.
Now that anything that can be imagined can be digitally rendered, it is the strength of the imagination behind the effect that matters, not the quality of the execution. Viewers of the 1940 romp The Thief of Bagdad would have been thrilled to see bottles melting or reforming at the Djinn’s command, but modern cinema audiences are used to similar impossibilities being used to market insurance and dog food.
It isn’t just too much detail within the fantasy that can be a problem. Too much realism can also be a distraction – it’s as if real jewels were being used in a conjuring act for children. There’s a moment in Three Thousand Years of Longing where a deranged sultan is mourning the death of his favorite entertainer. The old man’s corpse is disconcertingly lifelike, or deathlike, far more convincing than the vast majority of bodies shown on screen, but for no apparent reason. It’s true that George Miller trained as a doctor and completed a stint as a hospital resident, so he is likely to have direct experience of bodies, but that can hardly dictate his choices in a fantasy film.
Althea tries to get out of the three-wishes trap by wishing for trivial things (taking a sip of tea, for instance), but the rules of the gift require that her wishes correspond to her heart’s desires. She regards such stories, on the basis of the narrative tradition, as cautionary tales that do the supposedly lucky finder of the enchanted object no good. The most famous djinn story of them all, “Aladdin”, has a happy ending, but (narratologist that she is) Alithea would be likely to point out that Aladdin’s genie grants any number of wishes. The story, which may have an oral basis, was added to the text of The Thousand and One Nights by its French translator.
Althea makes no mention of the most famous three-wishes story, WW Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw”, though it would be a nice touch for her to give the Djinn a reading list. “The Monkey’s Paw” could hardly be a more obvious example of the cautionary tale (don’t mess with the occult), but it has its own element of tricksiness. You could read it as using the macabre gothic framework to lead readers to an experience of a horror with nothing supernatural about it. Take away that framework, along with the supposed intervention of otherworldly forces, and you are left with an industrial accident, a meagre compensation payment and a precarious household deprived of its only wage-earner. The insecurity of the establishment is disguised in the story’s opening, all chess, good cheer and mellow firelight, but the real horror in “The Monkey’s Paw” is destitution.
Three Thousand Years of Longing, edited by Margaret Sixel, starts briskly, cutting from a shot behind the wheels of Alithea’s plane as it lands in Istanbul to the wheels on her luggage trolley. When the story returns with Althea and the Djinn to London, both tone and tempo falter. There’s an attempt to locate the action in the present day, with face masks indicating a pandemic timeline, but there’s little point to such realistic touches when a rather niche academic like Alithea turns out to live in a spacious house in a desirable area. The only dust motes to be seen here are little particulate special effects, diffuse sprinklings of enchantment. Her next-door neighbors turn out to be a pair of genteel biddies whose mask slips almost immediately, revealing a rancour worthy of Cinderella’s ugly sisters long pickled in xenophobia.
The director is fond of using hyper-realistic sound to substantiate his fantasy. One prince is featured almost entirely by his spurs, both in sound and vision – spurs may not have featured so heavily in a film since the heyday of the spaghetti western. When glass fragments fall from Althea’s towel-turban, every tinkle is scrupulously registered on the soundtrack. Flames crackle to the right of the sound picture even when the fireplace is out of shot. One effect that I hope does not catch on is a close-up of a woman’s throat (the Queen of Sheba’s first, Alithea’s later) accompanied by a sort of eroticized gulp to mark the moment when she loses her heart.
All these aural details are essentially prosaic. There’s no possibility of their doing what is required here and producing a poetic effect. The same is true of their visual counterparts. Each of the various departments on a film production, the sound engineers, the composer, the special-effects technicians, the editing team, all the wonder-working subdivisions of the enterprise, have this in common with Djinns – they can’t grant wishes that the possessor of the magic lamp, in this case the director, doesn’t make. Miller has wished for busy hyper-realistic detail rather than poetry.
The single richest treasury of poetic visual effects is the cinema of Jean Cocteau, where they make their impact with the simplest possible means. When Beast is distracted from his conversation with Beauty by a deer in the bushes behind her, his ears prick up – something presumably managed by the actor, Jean Marais, with a squeeze of a bulb in his pocket rigged to activate little bladders on each side of his head. But Cocteau could be as inventive in sound. At the climax of his last film, The Testament of Orpheus (1960), the protagonist (played by the director) walks away from the goddess Athena and is fatally transfixed by the spear she throws. What does it sound like when a goddess’s spear impales an ageing aesthete? It’s hardly worth asking the question. Cocteau inserts, at the moment of impact, the sound of a jet engine taking off. The arrival of this third element into the shot, as remote from ancient Greece as it is from a poet’s concern with his posterity, doesn’t make the moment convincing, merely unforgettable.
Adam Mars-Jones’s novel Batlava Lake was published in 2021
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