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I dream of Djinnie

TILDA SWINTON and Idris Elba in a scene from Three Thousand Years of Longing

Movie ReviewThree Thousand Years of LongingDirected by George Miller

GEORGE MILLER’s Three Thousand Years of Longing isn’t exactly an action extravaganza like Mad Max: Fury Road —  but then Miller isn’t exactly an action filmmaker, or isn’t only an action filmmaker. He’s done medical dramas (Lorenzo’s Oil), children’s films (Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet), bizarre literary adaptations (The Witches of Eastwick); he’s done arguably the best episode of The Twilight Zone ever filmed (a remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”). His forays into fantasy and horror are at least as interesting for the distinct ways they handle special effects (Babe: Pig in the City looks and feels like Maurice Sendak was high on mushrooms) as for what they have to say (the fantasy and especially the horror genre being arguably better at addressing our anxieties than mere action flicks).

Miller’s latest, an adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, poses the question: what if a scholarly connoisseur of stories —  a “narratologist” named Alithea (Tilda Swinton) were to meet a living embodiment of those stories, the aforementioned Djinn (Idris Elba)? What happens when a woman who’s literally heard it all meets a man (or manlike creature) who’s literally seen it all?

You’d imagine design and digital effects unfolding spectacularly across the wide screen and for a little over half the film you’d be right. The Djinn, to win the wary narratologist’s trust, weaves one tale after another Scheherazade fashion, only this teller means to spur his mistress to action, not delay her; like his female equivalent however he does intend to beguile and seduce, to slowly bend her will to his own, and you can tell from the theme emerging from his stories where his narrative thrust (heh) is directed: in each anecdote he’s the unintended victim, the powerful supernatural seduced by one beautiful woman after another, moved by their plight to risk everything to help them, paying the price for his pity with another thousand years in a bottle.

From Queen Sheba (a literally goldskinned Aamito Lagum) to mistress Gulten (a pixieish heavily pregnant Ece Yuksel) to imprisoned housewife Zefir (the perpetually yearning Burcu Golgedar), the women evolve from impossibly beautiful to eclectically striking to being suspiciously designed to resemble Alithea in her plight. Particularly Zefir —  her story of a wife and her Djinn cocooned in a private paradise indulging in a secret orgy not of sex or drugs or even food but of knowledge, the heady heedless guzzling of science and technology sounds almost like a promise (this is what life could be like if you only wish it). You suspect Miller (who has a medical degree) favors the latter tale as well: his depiction of a mind responding to the wonders of the universe on display has the intensity of personal experience.

And then? And then Miller runs aground, so to speak, for most critics: after one wonderment after another, after that riot of color and fantasy, we’re brought to London and confined to a run-of-the-mill modern-day flat? Does this, should this work, this pulling down a tale lost in centuries of dreaming and voluptuous hedonism to the level of everyday life?

It’s the point I think —  for a woman who’s heard it all and a creature who’s seen it all, the ultimate in adventure and peril is ordinary human interaction, two people seeing each other across a room and perhaps venturing to form an attachment. And for all the effort and money poured into the digital wizardry (some folks complain that they look fake; I think Miller had aimed for a less photorealistic more brazenly stylized look), the most fascinating effect are these two excellent actors doing a pas de deux in immaculately white Turkish cotton bathrobes, conversing in the common language of dreams and metaphysical hyperawareness (“There’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale.” “We all have desires even if they remain hidden from us. But it is your story and I cannot wait to see where it goes.”). Miller had intended to shoot in three countries — Australia, Turkey, the United Kingdom —  but the pandemic confined him mainly in Australia, and I think the change may have been beneficial: forced to use sets, the locales (and especially the London scenes) add yet another level of stylization, yet another reminder that this tale about tales is itself a tale meant to beguile and distract on its way to telling a truth.

Miller is usually the star of his films, with his kinetic camera movement and pop-up shock cuts that somehow remain remarkably lucid; here he, the production design, and the digital effects surrender center stage to its two key performers. Idris Elba makes for a courtly yet sensuous Djinn, complete with shimmering blue furry legs; his heavy-lidded eyes promise mystery and allure and enchantments galore but when opened wide startle you with their vulnerability and carefully hidden sense of compassion. His accent is apparently made-up with its softly rolled r’s, its eccentrically pronounced vowels, its lazy almost insolent sense of familiarity —  an endlessly comic instrument with which Elba seems to parody Middle Eastern accents, or Western notions of what Middle Eastern accents should sound like. Tilda Swinton acts like an oyster, a tight-clamped mollusk that speaks in a crisp Scottish accent; even her body language suggests something ramrod tense, almost totally withheld, as if terrified to uncoil and reveal anything of herself to anyone less she embarrass herself —  or worse, embarrass anyone around her.

I’ve heard accusations of Orientalism, and a casual viewing of the film suggests the accusations may have basis —  white filmmaker adapting fiction from a white author, about a powerful black Middle Eastern creature in a constant state of slavery, the exotic locales, the luscious snacks (not sure, but I believe they’re nan-e nokhodchi —  Persian cookies made from chickpea flour with pistachios and cardamom), the tales of warm humid sensuality. One explanation, not excuse —  not quite prepared to die on this hill —  the Djinn is deliberately tailoring the tales to Alithea’s notions of Middle Eastern culture, hence the cliches, or rather the Djinn is tailoring the tales to his notions of what Alithea’s notions of Middle Eastern culture might be like. Not an unimportant issue —  the whole question of the Djinn’s freedom or continued lack of hinges on Alithea’s notions, opinions, beliefs, and he must continue playing on this neurotically tuned guitar softly and carefully if he is to win his freedom.

Worth watching? I’d say any Miller film is worth watching, and on the biggest screen you can find one (which you might want to do ASAP, as the box-office news isn’t great and the critics aren’t helping much) —  Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” remake are practically definitive texts on the art of hurtling hurting action filmmaking; Babe: Pig in the City is quietly demented lyrical fantasy; Lorenzo’s Oil is one of the most intensely complex yet clearly told medical dramas ever committed to celluloid. Even his misfires (Witches of Eastwick anyone?) are memorable for their ambition and oddball choices (the Devil alive and vomiting cherry pits in New England?). Ideally, I’d see it with a big bag of those delicious-looking cookies, snuck in past the usher (Unless they’re served at the snack counter as a promo, what are the chances?), piping-hot delicious.

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