A man cannot live on Thunderdomes alone, apparently. Somewhere between the twinned dystopias of 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road and its upcoming prequel Furiosa, due in 2024, director George Miller must have felt the urge for a palate cleanser. The result is Three Thousand Years of Longing, which premiered last night at the Cannes Film Festival — a glossy cinematic knickknack steeped in the heady unreality of a fable, or a dream.
Even its casting feels like Mad Libs: Tilda Swinton is Alithea Binnie, a London "narratologist," or professional studier of stories; Idris Elba is the immortal djinn she meets when she goes to an academic conference in Turkey and finds herself drawn to a unassuming glass bottle at a marketplace stall. A primly self-contained woman with a round-voweled accent and an Anna Wintour wedge, Alithea is, she insists, "adequately happy alone": no parents, no children, no partner. But visions have followed her since she landed in Istanbul — fierce, outlandish creatures trailing iridescent vapors like space dust in their wake.
And when she takes her toothbrush to a stubborn spot of grime on the little blue-and-white vial she's brought back from the bazaar to her hotel room, a house-sized Elba emerges in a hurricane swirl of glittering red and blue. He can make himself human-scale, and adapt to her English; he can even conjure a bathrobe and a full Babylonian breakfast. But what he's really there to offer is three wishes, strictly her heart's desire. Alithea wants none of it: She's heard tales like these enough times to know they're all cautionary in the end, and she demands, at the least, to know how he got here.
So Elba's djinn, his elfin ears flocked and his palms dusted in fuchsia and gold, begins to recount centuries of misadventure and thwarted attempts to gain his freedom, from the Queen of Sheba to a young slave girl, a rampaging Sultan and a trapped trophy wife. Fantastical bits of flair abound — the candy-colored sheen on a horse's mane, a tiny Einstein scaled to be cupped in a hand — and Miller's camera swoops and dips like it's been strapped to an eagle's back. It's all jumpy and surreal and frankly carnal, like an Aladdin for adults or a swords-and-sandals epic recast by Guillermo del Toro.
The source material is actually a short story by the Booker Prize-winning novelist A.S. Byatt, but the stuff that is Miller's feels indubitably his: A queen's orgasm dissolving in beads of liquid gold; a roomful of round-hipped concubines lounging languidly, their nude bodies a diorama of fleshy, decadent folds; a man bursting spontaneously into a skittering mass of spiders. He even slips in a little sly politicking, via two nosy geriatric Brexiters, and comes perhaps the closest he ever has to conventional romance in Swinton and Elba's strange, cosmic courtship dance.
It's the Longing in the title, though, that the director keeps coming back to, and the enduring loneliness of his two main protagonists (one adrift for at least half a lifetime, the other for several millennia more). In that sense, the film's tone and intended audience never quite come into focus. It's a gentler, sadder movie than the dizzying trailer suggests, and less driven by plot than a stickler for storytelling like Alithea might prefer: a loopy little jewel-box reverie, slipped between two Furies. Grade: B