Sunday 11 September 2022

Yarnbombing: "Three Thousand Years of Longing"

You can feel Film Twitter sitting altogether clenched in relation to
Three Thousand Years of Longing, as if they'd collectively wolfed down a plate of fizzy-tasting airport shrimp en route to their next festival destination. In theory, this should be right up everybody's street. It's George Miller following up Mad Max: Fury Road, the great action movie of the past decade, and a clear example of a prominent filmmaker using the success of his last movie (glowing reviews, major box-office, actual Academy Award nominations) to set about the kind of project he wouldn't get to make at any other time. It's Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba - both of whom have their fervent online admirers - as, respectively, a professor of narratology and the weary djinn she looses from a bottle while staying over in the Istanbul hotel room where Agatha Christie reportedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express. And scene by scene, frame by frame, it has remarkable images, asides, even transitions. The trouble is it never solidifies into anything more than a minor work, cobbled together as it has been from colourful, sometimes garish, occasionally indigestible flim-flam. At best, it's an odd fish, in the lineage of Tarsem Singh's The Fall and the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas: a film compiled with childlike wonder, which cost a fortune to make, is a nightmare to sell, and whose flashes of excellence are doomed to go no further than three-quarters-empty multiplex screens. In its lesser stretches, however, it really is fizzy shrimp: something liable to pass through you at a rapid rate of knots, on its way to being forgotten about.

From the outside, TTYOL might look like one of those personal, one-for-yourself productions: it's been adapted (by Miller and Augusta Gore) from A.S. Byatt's short-story collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, and the closing credits carry a dedication to the director's late mother Angela. Yet the longer you sit with it, the more it starts to feel like an attempt to meet the demands of the modern studio system halfway, to make some version of the kind of thing the suits want from their creatives right now. (Istanbul itself is used as a halfway house or sorting office, some distance closer to Hollywood than the far-out Outback of Fury Road, which may as well have been located on another planet.) An early lecture sequence finds Swinton's Alithea arguing that ancient myths were a forerunner to today's comic-book capers, and the fantasy we segue into does feel like Miller turning an idiosyncratic hand to material that could be described as at least Marvel or D.C.-adjacent; the big difference is the framing, which forsakes the sequential momentum of comic-strip panels in favour of a stewy, Arabian Nights-like compendium of extraordinary diversions and deviations, set out in a variety of ancient tongues. As the lecture theatre's mask-wearing audience establishes, this is also Miller's Covid movie, an adjustment to external circumstances that takes as its primary location the controlled environment of an aerated hotel room populated by at most two actors. (And possibly just one-and-a-half, Elba having been elongated by a hundred thousand pixels.) Superficially, the film TTYOL most resembles is a kinkier Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, although its quirks and fetishes would seem all but guaranteed to baffle the Silver Screen crowd.

So: denied the vast logistics afforded to him for Fury Road and its forthcoming spin-off Furiosa, Miller has been obliged to spend the past few years sitting in place and gathering stories. That comes through in the sheer amount of talk here - the conversation yanked out of the Fury Road script in the service of greater action. This djinn turns out to be an exceptionally chatty Kathy, using his newfound liberty to unburden himself of the many human follies he's witnessed in his time; Alithea can barely get a word in, let alone three wishes. Evidently, Miller intends to relocate the genie, typically a mere narrative tool, to the very centre of such a yarn. Casting a performer of colour in the role - rather than, say, Robin Williams - only bolsters the sense of narrative rerouting, and it further helps Miller's cause that Elba is an eminently capable storyteller. (Bond may have gone, but this is the project that finally lands the actor that Jackanory gig.) These digressions are amply illustrated, benefitting from Miller's enduring belief in the power of the storyboard - he's still highly engaged with the look of the film, however tell-not-show the framework threatens to get. The genie's reminiscences occasion amazing images: a doomed sultan's spurs lodging in a carpet, a harem of especially voluptuous women. Yet they're sort of wasted here as Family Guy-style cutaways, arrived at far too late in the day to have the mythic resonance Miller wants: everything's backstory - or origin story, as the director might have pitched to the executives. The result seems simultaneously static and overstuffed: two characters and a filmmaker stuck in an overlit suite, gorging themselves on tall tales ordered up like room service. Miller wouldn't be the only one whose creative muscles atrophied a little over lockdown, but it explains the slight disappointment his latest induces. After the pedal-to-the-metal Fury Road, which was almost the Platonic ideal of the motion picture, this feels more like an eventful layover - or being stuck on a shuttle bus next to someone who just won't shut up.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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