Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

George Miller | 1hr 48min

If we are to view George Miller’s high-octane Mad Max films as a succession of dystopian legends, then it might seem that Three Thousand Years of Longing is merely an extension of his fascination in classic, culture-defining narratives. For lonely literature academic Alithea, such stories are indeed the very foundation of human history and identity, and on a more intimate level, the only love she has ever truly known. Relationships with those who take tangible form have never quite worked out, and so she absorbs herself in studies which send her to distant corners of the world in intellectual exploration. Her discovery of a Djinn within Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar might as well be a manifestation of that love, as with his promise of three wishes also comes three tales of his past, each one expressing a deep affection for this ancient tradition of expression and understanding. On their own, such fables are simply windows into other lives, though as Alithea elucidates, there is power in understanding the broader connections that form between them.

“Each story is a fragment in an endless, shape-shifting mosaic.”

On this level, Three Thousand Years of Longing takes a self-cognisant approach to its construction as a metanarrative, playfully examining the fundamental human desire to find some sort of wish fulfillment in our own imaginations. Alithea too carries the same awareness of narrative conventions that we enter this film with – “There’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale,” she warns herself – and yet Miller is not so interested in the consequences of wishing, and more in how our approach to wishes reveals our deepest insecurities. Those with blind ambition will not think them through. Those with narrow-minded terror will actively avoid them altogether. As for someone as educated and comfortable as Alithea, it is not until after she overcomes her initial reluctance that she is able to confront the discontent she has harboured for her entire life, finally accepting that she does indeed possess a desire for something more.

At its strongest, Three Thousand Years of Longing savours the lavish detail of its historical settings, flitting through Ancient Egypt, 16th century Ottoman Empire, and 19th century Turkey where the Djinn was thrice doomed by women he either served or loved. Certainly there are some beautiful flourishes of camerawork in the modern day, especially as Miller’s camera floats with ethereal wonder through the colourful Grand Bazaar, but the golden lighting, vivid costumes, and majestic architecture of the flashbacks are clearly where Miller most enjoys spending time as a visual artist. As the camera speeds across a dusty orange battlefield of Ottoman soldiers and horses, there is even a hint of Mad Max: Fury Road bleeding through, recalling the bombastic vigour that he has effectively built his career on.

With Idris Elba’s narration of these flashbacks contained within the larger framing device of Tilda Swinton’s wistful voiceover, both effectively take turns leading us through tales of confinement and liberation, offering up a collage of fairy tale motifs made personal by their rich characterisations. Still, even their performances aren’t enough to make Alithea’s first wish feel fully earned, and this only segues into a rushed final act which lacks the visual and narrative potency of the Djinn’s fables. The editing also takes a curious turn here away from its brisk pacing and slickly composed match cuts, and towards questionable transitions that dissolve to black between scenes, leaving a mysterious lack of resolution in their wake.

That Miller does not entirely stick the landing on some of his creative choices though should not scare off those looking for bold, ambitious cinema. Like Alithea, he is in love with the craft of storytelling, and the joy he takes in imagining its manifestation as a physical being is infused with the film’s own formal construction, layering fables on top of fables until we arrive at a greater understanding of the grand tradition he is taking part in. In effect, Three Thousand Years of Longing becomes that “endless, shape-shifting mosaic” that Alithea expresses immense admiration for, as within it Miller constructs an expression of ardent desire greater than the sum of its beautiful, mythological fragments.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is currently playing in theatres.

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