“My story is true, but you are more likely to believe it if you tell it as a fairy tale,” declares Tilda Swinton at the start of Three Thousand Years of Longing. And she has to know. She’s an academic who studies the science of narrative — and fittingly, she’s our narrator in this soul-searching epic. Like any good tale, there will be illusion, romance, and a timeless quality that will drive audiences to distant lands. But there will also be the ordinary: from Turkish hotel rooms to London residences.
The film is based on a short story by AS Byatt The jinn in the nightingale’s eye, which was published in 1994, shortly after it won the Booker Prize. Adapting to the matter is Australian director George Miller and his daughter, Augusta Gore. It’s Miller’s first film since the 2015 hit Mad Max: Fury Road, and his return to the post-apocalyptic world he created with the 1979 original. While that was an electric journey of a few words, this lengthy story takes place over three millennia over a period of time. some days. They couldn’t be more different, other than sharing Miller’s wonderful visual imagination.
When the movie begins, Swinton’s character, Dr. Alethia Penny, heads to a conference in Istanbul. We know she’s lonely, since her husband eloped with a younger woman. Since then, she has closed off on affairs of the heart. When she gives her lecture, she suddenly sees a strange vision that causes her to faint. This wouldn’t be the last time the other world would receive him. When she’s shopping at the bazaar, she buys a trinket that she takes back to her hotel room. When she brushes her teeth – as if by magic – a jinn (Idris Elba) appears.
At first, it’s his actual scale – I just glimpsed it as a huge, golden-colored foot the size of Alethia’s room, like something out of a Ray Harryhausen movie. But then this pointy-eared elf transforms into a human figure, wearing a hotel bathrobe and sitting on the bed next to Alethea. Like all good jinn, he wants to give her three wishes, whatever her heart desires, in exchange for his freedom. But as a student of such things, the academic is wise about this. “There is no story about wishing this wasn’t a cautionary tale,” she says.
Instead, you hear the story of the jinn, a story that will take us back three thousand years, to a world of chubby sultans and concubines, where a malevolent sorcerer is sentenced to prison. “Can you imagine feeling lonely?” He cries, trapped inside a bottle, trapped under a stone slab with little chance of finding him. But of course, that’s just part of his story, a story that contains allusions to everything from the Bible to the Arabian Nights. When Alithea falls under the influence of her spell, her emotions gradually open up.
Miller and his cinematographer John Sell, who previously filmed Mad Max: Fury Road, conjure up eerie tales of gin with real Ilan, even if the contrast between the pristine Alithea hotel suite and the gin’s past can get a little stressful. Swinton, with her red bob, is perfect for the academy planted, like a less cheerful version of the art historian she played in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Meanwhile, Elba uses his strong and muscular presence to great effect, while taking on a more romantic role he rarely does in films.
The final chapter moves to London, which is not a case of eternal happiness as the story takes on a more somber tone. Miller also delves into the fear of the other, especially when Alithea confronts her biased neighbors in an especially powerful sequence. But above all, it is a transcendent and tragic love story. Some will find the zigzag nature of the story frustrating, but it is undeniable that Miller has an all-encompassing romantic vision that he clearly pursues. As an ode to the art of storytelling, it’s also utterly charming.
Three Thousand Years of Longing will be shown in cinemas starting September 2.
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