It seems that every once in a while, George Miller makes something other than the enormously successful and celebrated Mad Max action films. That’s when he turns to another kind of filmmaking he likes — gentle, humorous, dark-edged fables. When that goes well, you get Babe or its sequel Babe: Pig in the City. When it doesn’t go well, you get Three Thousand Years of Longing.
Not that the film isn’t well-crafted. It’s beautifully shot by cinematographer John Seale, there are some pleasantly fantastical CGI effects, and the lead actors Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba are brilliant as always. I’m sure there are people of refined sensibilities with tolerance for slow-going narratives who will really enjoy this movie. But as for me, I couldn’t wait to bolt out of the theater into the fresh air.
There’s a certain kind of leaden, high-culture whimsy that I can’t stand at any price, and Three Thousand Years of Longing is Exhibit A. It’s based on a 1994 novella called The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A. S. Byatt, and Byatt is one of those universally revered authors that people who know about good literature urge me to read. I have a queasy smile for these occasions, and a vague, dutiful reply such as, “I know, I really have to read some A. S. Byatt,” right before I sidle to the door and run away.
But if Three Thousand Years of Longing is any accurate representation of the kind of stuff Booker Prize–winning Dame Antonia Susan Duffy aka A. S. Byatt is turning out, I don’t have to be polite about her anymore. Because being the author of such a sodden romantic fantasy is just embarrassing.
The adaptation for the screen was written by director Miller with his daughter, Augusta Gore. The plot involves a seemingly self-satisfied narratology professor named Alithea Binnie (Swinton) who travels to Istanbul for a conference. There, in an old-world marketplace, she finds a glass bottle that she thinks must have an interesting story behind it — and after all, story is her life. Though the biggest insight her scholarship seems to arrive at is “people have always told stories in order to make meaning of the world and their lives.” Now there’s a real “No shit, Sherlock” idea that doesn’t require a doctorate.
Back at her hotel room, she cleans the bottle, knocks the top off, and of course, a giant gorgeous genie, or djinn, comes billowing out. And massive discomfort sets in, because Alithea is one of those stereotypical successful career women who puts a good face on things but are actually desperately lonely for love. And this djinn just happens to look exactly like the dizzyingly attractive Idris Elba, and the two of them are going to hang around her hotel room wearing white terry cloth robes until she comes up with three wishes, expressing her heart’s desires, that will set him free.
She denies having any real desires, of course. He tells her stories of his past great loves through the ages, shown in opulent flashbacks full of queens and sultans and silks and velvets and priceless gems and flashing swords and court intrigues, to remind her what desire is, or something. Anyway, it’s a long, mortifying wait before the professor-djinn love scene.
The $60 million film is tanking badly, and people who like nice things will no doubt say, “See, this is why we can’t have nice things.”
But how nice is this thing, really? It’s the most cringeworthy film I’ve seen in ages, loaded up with obsolete clichés. You’ll never find a more grotesquely oversized example of the “Magical Negro” than this. A fairytale figure who lives in bondage but never opts for freedom because he keeps falling in love with the women who benefit from his powers, he lives to serve.
There’s a moment when the suspicious professor, who knows how badly these three-wishes stories tend to pan out, says, “You might just be a trickster figure.” And I can’t tell you how I wished he’d turn out to be a trickster figure, involved in a long con to get this horrible, arrogant, bloodless Brit woman to set him free. She’s such an anemic academic type, he says at one point, “Are you even alive?”
But though he doesn’t seem to like her, he has to be made to love her anyway. In the end, he’s all puppy dog eyes and endless devotion, even at the risk of his own demise. Turns out contemporary London life with this awful woman has the power to kill a supernatural being.
Only you’re not supposed to think she’s awful. It’s confusing — this meaningful, high-minded work full of characters that you wish, as Mark Twain once put it, would “all get drowned together.” Such narratives demand so much of the poor suffering audience in terms of having to pretend to like things that are supposed to be good for us.
But at least we can all comfort ourselves remembering that George Miller is making another Mad Max film.