George Miller may be our prime cinematic fantasist if only because his fantasies cover such a wide range of subject matter. Known mainly for the Mad Max series, he’s also responsible for the two Babe movies and the animated penguin romp Happy Feet. But while he’s noted for indulging his inner child, his movies always have an adult component that most people under the age of 18 probably wouldn’t appreciate. It’s this peculiarly adult yearning for something ideal that motivates his latest film, based on a novella by A.S. Byatt, that reimagines the Arabian Nights as a conversation between two brainy people with way too much time on their hands.
Tilda Swinton plays Alithia Binney, a dyed-in-the-wool academic whose field of study, narratology, seems so arcane that you wonder how she can possibly make a living, but she seems quite comfortable, jetsetting around the world, attending literary conferences and visiting museums and bazaars for stories. In Istanbul, she buys an old glass container in a market and when she gets back to her beautifully appointed hotel room discovers that it contains a djinn (Idris Elba), who, naturally, offers to grant her three wishes. But before he does that he has to tell her his story, because he’s been cooped up in the container for 3,000 years and is just dying to have a nice, long chat. This should be right up Alithia’s alley, but all through these rangey episodes about kings and harems and doomed betrothals Alithia maintains the attitude of an informed skeptic, which isn’t to say she doesn’t believe him, but that she’s heard enough stories in her life to take every pronouncement, regardless of how passionately it’s presented, with several grains of salt. But the greatest insult to the djinn’s self-esteem is her total indifference to coming up with three wishes. She wants for nothing, which explains the picture perfect but highly improbable production design.
Despite Swinton’s and Elba’s intense, idiosyncratic performances, these conversations never quite get on a track that would keep the movie on a steady course. Every tale the djinn tells is vividly recreated but thematically and emotionally inert; there’s no through-line for the two interlocutors to grab onto, no overarching narrative. So what you get is an intelligent colloquy about the meaning of love and how power, whether granted by magic or lineage, is inherently corruptible. And while there is a certain romantic frisson between the two principals, Miller doesn’t really know what to do with it. It’s essentially a children’s movie that would put most children to sleep.
In English, Greek, Turkish, German and French. Opens Feb. 23 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Three Thousand Years of Longing home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2022 Kennedy Miller Mitchell TTYOL Pty Ltd.