Show, don’t tell. It’s a fundamental rule of filmmaking, one that George Miller rarely has trouble following. Mad Max: Fury Road is not only among the century’s best action pictures, but also the finest examples of visual storytelling. Even Miller’s more dialogue-heavy films (Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet, The Witches of Eastwick) all got much across through the visuals. Miller breaks this sacred rule in Three Thousand Years of Longing. That’s not to say the film is without Miller’s signature visual flair. The production design, costumes, and effects all warrant Oscar consideration in another feast for the eyes. As admirable as the aesthetic is, Miller spells too much out to absorb them.
The performances are another irrefutable redeeming quality. Tilda Swinton shines as Alithea Binnie, a scholar who comes across a djinn’s bottle. In case your knowledge of Arabian mythology is limited to the Disney version of Aladdin, a djinn is essentially a genie. Idris Elba brings a dignified presence to the Djinn, who’s gone through a series of masters over the past three thousand years. Most of the film takes place in a hotel room with the Djinn recounting his eons of solitude and servitude. While the ensuing flashbacks don’t skimp on the production values, Miller and Augusta Gore’s screenplay overlies on Elba’s voiceovers.
Elba is a charismatic screen presence whose voice is well-suited for narration. Miller never lets a scene just play out, though, with the Djinn constantly explaining what we’re watching. It doesn’t help that the stories themselves aren’t as involving as one would anticipate. Characters are introduced only for their stories to end abruptly or go nowhere at all. Occasionally, we find ourselves getting attached to a character, but nobody’s given enough time to fully imprint on us. Even the Djinn’s story gets sidelined during an overlong subplot where his bottle is hidden under a heavy piece of tile.
Weirdly enough, the film’s most magical moments aren’t the flashbacks, but the scenes between Swinton and Elba in the hotel room. The Djinn insists that Alithea has to make three wishes. Alithea is reluctant, claiming to have everything that she desires. Being a scholar, Alithea is also familiar with many stories where the moral is “be careful what you wish for.” Based on the Djinn’s experiences, everything about those cautionary tales seems true. Listening to these two discuss life, longing, and philosophy is more engaging than the Djinn’s past three thousand years. It also amounts to an intriguing romance that leaves the audience with a lot to read into.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is an admirable effort. It’s wonderful to look at, the acting is excellent, and the themes provide leeway for some worthwhile conversations. The premise doesn’t quite reach its potential, however. Had there been less focus on the narration and more time dedicated to developing the supporting players, perhaps this could’ve been the epic fantasy that Miller strives for. As is, this is sadly one of Miller’s weaker outings. Even at his weakest, though, I’ll gladly take Miller over most other filmmakers.