When a director as frenetic as George Miller makes a film, the film community perks up. After all, the man behind the Mad Max, Babe, and Happy Feet franchises seamlessly moves between genres and storytelling choices. Despite the critical success of Mad Max: Fury Road, the film somehow thread a needle between maximalist imagery and minimalist dialogue. In many ways, his latest film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, continues the trend. Miller again paints a virtuosic vision of a particular world with his camera. This time, however, he scales back the action sequences into a flowery narrative. As a result, Miller’s film represents a novelistic approach akin to Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time or Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish, rather than the bombastic world of the Wasteland. The resulting film stuns on its own terms, reframing Miller’s athletic direction as an act of poetry.
For the scholar Alithia (Tilda Swinton), a trip to Istanbul serves as a business trip and a vacation. As an intellectual, a trip to the cradle of civilization represents a chance to connect with unique storytelling techniques. After suffering from a collapse, Alithia discovers a small blue bottle in a shop. While cleaning it, she unleashes the Djinn (Idris Elba) trapped inside. Alithia and the Djinn discuss the trials and tribulations of his life.
Miller’s life as a medical doctor influenced much of his early career. It allowed him to tap into gnarly images of death and destruction. For many years, there was a nihilism coursing through his work. Even Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City represented a call to break free from the monotony of life in the modern world. Yet Three Thousand Years of Longing traffics in hope, despite a lifetime of pain. For Miller, an undervalued artist unable to break from franchise storytelling for most of his career, there’s something genuinely shocking about the optimism. More than anything, Three Thousand Years of Longing represents his admiration and joy at being able to tell a story. Even more surprising, he believes the struggles are worth the pain.
Miller’s obsession with storytelling affects the narrative from its earliest stages. Alithia introduces us to the world and asks us to believe the story she tells is true. We hear about Alithia’s writings as a child, an act that not only created her first friend but also caused them to disappear from the world. When she arrives at the Pera Palace in Instanbul, she stays in a room where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. That, in and of itself, is a story the hotel claims to be true, without much offering proof of the claim.
This is where Miller’s obsession with storytelling opens up the film. Quickly, it focuses on the unreliable narrators who populate the film, visually showing us stories that differ from narrated myths being spoken to the audience. Miller begins to walk a razor-thin tightrope between fact and fiction. While the modern world has achieved more in the last few hundred years by embracing the cold truth of science, there’s a majesty to the myths that helps the characters escape the tragedies of their lives. At once an intriguing metaphor and the ultimate endorsement of escapist entertainment, Miller forces us to consider the authenticity of the stories we hear.
Perhaps most importantly, Miller critiques how we absorb the culture in 2022. An early sequence compares gods of older cultures to our modern-day superheroes. In the story’s context, even academics seem adamant that we simply recycle our ideas. Yet this ignores the cultural context of these messages and the importance of who tells the story. Genuinely talented individuals are sequestered away from the world simply because they were born with the wrong skin color or gender. Others are manipulated and controlled by unseen forces, often including disinformation.
Miller once again proves himself a master of visual storytelling. The worlds he creates drip with beautiful gold, stunning electricity, and otherworldly magnificence. The only thing that Miller makes more appealing than the Turk and Ottoman-inspired visuals are the gorgeous bodies that litter the film. He never seeks to pass judgment on the characters on screen. Instead, Miller frames each character through their lover’s point of view. This allows him to populate extremely sensual sequences with individuals that are rarely highlighted by Western audiences. Combining his stunning visuals with a chapter-book structure allows Miller to shift the setting of his story hundreds of years at a time. If nothing else, the craft teams, especially cinematographer John Seale, deserve high praise.
Swinton and Elba establish a report that draws us into the film. Elba’s narration carries much of the film, and his silky voice adds to the novelistic approach to the film. He benefits from adding his expressive face to many flashback sequences, which blends exceedingly well with the stories he tells. Swinton showcases her incredible ability for subtlety in her role. From her first minute on screen, we begin unraveling her mysterious background. As we dig into the layers of pain and anguish in her life, we build to genuine wishes that Swinton sells exquisitely.
While some will find the film a little slow, Miller rewards you for your patience. Obsessed with stories while presenting critiques of our modern entertainment ecosystem, Three Thousand Years of Longing stands out in Miller’s filmography. An intricate tale, Three Thousand Years stands will undoubtedly be among 2022’s most unique films. Miller remains one of the most technically proficient directors alive, and there’s no doubt he’s among our best.
Alan’s Rating: 9/10
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