'Three Thousand Years of Longing' Review
August 26, 2022
Resting somewhere between David Gordon Green and Steven Spielberg, Australian filmmaker George Miller ranks as one of our most chameleon filmmakers (to Miller’s benefit, he’s much closer to the latter than the former). Ranging from the harsh brutalism of the Mad Max quadrilogy to the familial wholesomeness of Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, Miller’s career has never had a straight trajectory. Rather, it darts from one end of the cinematic spectrum to the complete other side, with the only consistent thing pattern being that he always remains on the high side of quality.
So naturally, when asked how he would describe his newest film, the first to follow his magnum opus of Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller called it “anti-Mad Max.” But fret not all you War Boys (and girls)! For all of its intimacy and small scale, Three Thousand Years of Longing contains dazzling imagery and set pieces that make for an engaging cinematic experience. After all, this is still the same filmmaker who gave us a blind character that plays a flaming guitar atop a monster truck.
Just as the title implies, our story spans nearly three millennia. Beginning in the present, acclaimed narratologist Dr. Alithea Binnie is on a work-related trip to Istanbul. By her definition, she’s a solitary creature that has no partner, no parents, and no children. She buries herself in her work, which includes giving lectures on how ancient civilizations would explain the phenomena of the universe through stories. As she puts it during one of her talks, “How else would you explain the changing seasons if you had no idea the Earth rotated the Sun?”
Her fascination with stories leads her to purchase a less-than-stellar bottle at a local shop. “Whatever it is, it must have an interesting story, '' she explains as she takes it back to her hotel room. That turns out to be the understatement of the century, or, more accurately, the past three millennia. Quickly, the bottle is broken, and out comes a djinn, whose existence is based on granting three wishes to whoever frees him from the bottle. Now Alithea’s predicament revolves around the question everybody has asked themselves at least once in their lives: If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?
To help Alithea (and the viewer) answer one of life’s hardest philosophical questions, the djinn regales his life story, which spans from ancient Arabia in the time of King Solomon, to Suleiman the Magnificent's reign of the Ottoman Empire, all the way to the modern day.
It’s no wonder what brought Miller to this short story by A.S. Byatt. Reportedly, he had read it in the ‘90s and was set on making it into a film, but the scope he wanted to achieve just wasn’t possible (a sentiment many filmmakers shared at the time). Miller’s patience was rewarded, with the final product being a gorgeous melding of visual effects and practical magic. Each of the djinn’s tales contains aspects of lust and betrayal, each more visually arresting than the last. It’s in these sequences that the film reaches its heights.
And it’s not just Miller himself that is a chameleon, it’s also his production crew, which has been entirely reunited after the overwhelming success of Mad Mad: Fury Road. Miller’s eye for popping visuals is wonderfully captured by legendary cinematographer John Seale, who announced this project as his final one (although Seale has as much respect for retirement as Daniel Day-Lewis, as came out of retirement for Mad Max: Fury Road, only to retire again and then return for this film). And then there’s Tom Holkenborg, who trades in his drum core for a passionate string orchestra.
For all its extravagance on a technical level, Three Thousand Years of Longing still has overflowing emotion at its center. This is the part that Miller described the film as “anti-Mad Max.” Swinton and Elba carry the heartfelt moments with ease, even if the script itself can’t fully justify what direction it’s going in.
A modern fairytale that is both epic and intimate, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a wildly original re-welcoming for George Miller, who brings the spirit and passion of a filmmaker much younger than him. It’s a story about the power of storytelling, with Miller playfully executing his role as the storyteller with all the tricks at his disposal.
For any filmmaker of Miller’s age (nearing 80) and stature, one would think that he would treat this film as a starting point to make more smaller-scaled features. But Miller isn’t just any filmmaker, and it only seems natural that he’s currently in his native Australian Outback shooting Furiosa, the epic prequel to Mad Max: Fury Road.