What does it mean to tell a story? What does it mean to be a storyteller?
These are questions that have dated back as far as humans have interacted with one another trying to entertain, enlighten, make points, and create something greater than themselves.
It’s an existential question that can never truly be answered, but one that director George Miller attempts to tackle with his first feature film since the masterful Mad Max: Fury Road back in 2015.
Three Thousand Years of Longing, based on a short story by A.S. Byatt, is an avantgarde fantasy romance movie filled with paradox, confusion and simplicity all wrapped around grandiose cinema, practical effects and top-notch actors doing their best to describe the indescribable through words and actions.
The film follows an aging professor named Alithea on her way to give a lecture when by circumstance and fate, she encounters a mystical Djinn, a genie of sorts, offering to grant her three wishes. From this moment on, Alithea and her Djinn begin a beautiful, yet awkwardly misplaced cinematic dance that will astound some and confound most.
Miller is an expert at making art out of the bizarre and Longing is no exception. So much of the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer John Seale and each moment is incredibly well composed and visually compelling.
But for a film about the practice and wonder of storytelling, the storytelling in Longing is the weakest part of the film. It’s a movie based on a short story that probably should have been wrapped up in 60 minutes but takes well over 90 minutes, a film that features stories within stories none of which get to a deeper level and only serve as a “Canterbury Tales”-esque plot device to balance the larger narrative.
As a result, as much as audiences would like to know more about Alithea and the Djinn, everything is kept at an arm’s length. Viewers never truly wrap their minds around these characters in the way in which they should thanks to a bizarrely surface level examination of character in service of larger theme and certainly not in the way that talented character actors like Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba deserve.
Swinton’s Alithea is skeptical and inquisitive in a very quintessentially Swinton-esque way. The character actress revels in the verbosity of the screenplay by Miller and Augusta Gore with Swinton being probably the best choice to play the role, but by the end of 100 minutes, so little growth comes from her performance mainly due to the fact Swinton is a bystander, a secondary character in her own fil, that no deeper meaning is ever truly explored.
The same thing could easily be said of Elba’s Djinn although audiences do get to experience a wider berth of his performance as the Djinn plays a much more significant role in secondary storylines that predate Alithea. Audiences can feel the longing that the Djinn has, but it’s a largely unresolved, unrequited longing through no fault of Elba’s performance. Because Miller insists on the film being so open-ended, nothing mystical or magical ever materializes.
What makes Longing a film even remotely worth seeing theatrically are the technical aspects, which are a masterclass taking a subpar screenplay and elevating it to somewhat memorable status through the visual arts.
Largely done during the COVID-19 pandemic in small, intimate locations with minimal actors, Miller shoots practically and Longing has a wide array of visual style from tight closeups to make the grandiose Djinn feel even more larger than life to wonderfully engaging medieval set pieces that illustrate the romance of the period rather than the brutality held within.
A film that should be a shoo-in for awards season contention, Longing is too eccentric and inaccessible even for the most liberal of awards voters and while the technical mastery could very easily be rewarded in a normal year, it seems too farfetched even by Academy standards for recognition.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a big swing from a filmmaker with the cinematic credentials to take risks, although it’s a relative misfire despite all the talent involved and one maybe not worth taking a chance on for casual audiences.