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Three Thousand Years of Longing review – George Miller’s latest is a crushing disappointment

Where the director's 2015 Mad Max sequel had a boundless, thrilling energy, this story about stories barely has any pep in its step

After the Herculean achievement that was bringing Mad Max: Fury Road to cinematic life, you can hardly begrudge George Miller for wanting to take a seven year break between movies (and, thankfully, the next gap is only until the Furiosa prequel arrives in 2024). What is less forgivable is just how lethargic the follow-up, Three Thousand Years of Longing, is. A deliberate move away from action from Miller is, of course, no inherently bad thing (he’s one of the most elastic filmmakers working today), but this film's lack of energy hinders it massively.

The core problem here is that Miller’s film – co-written with his daughter Augusta Gore and adapting a short story by A.S. Byatt – is a love story with a couple that never feels convincing. Tilda Swinton plays one half of this pair in the form of Alithea, a narratologist (she studies stories) who, during a conference in Istanbul, buys an old bottle in a bazaar that happens to contain a Djinn, played by Idris Elba in pointy ears. As the Djinn tells his stories of his three previous loves (all of whom eventually trapped him in some sort of bottle) across 3000 years, Alithea falls for him, and vice versa.

Though Miller does a good job of drawing wordless parallels – it’s all in the framings and body language – between the Djinn’s previous paramours and Alithea, neither the script or the acting can support the filmmaking in this endeavour. Swinton and Elba simply lack the requisite chemistry, and the turn from Alithea simply being fascinated by her new mystical companion to being actively smitten with him is jarringly rapid. You never believe the story’s assertions that theirs is a coupling that is meant to be, which is a huge obstacle to, in particular, the ending, which, in exploring how technology has killed wonder and how to solve racism with Turkish snacks (?), hits far closer to “bizarre” than “moving.”

With the real-world half of the film flailing, it’s up to the Djinn’s stories to provide the magic, and they half-deliver. Taking us to the Biblical court of the Queen of Sheba, Constantinople shortly after its conquest by the Ottoman Empire, and 19th century Turkey, these flashbacks always have enough opulence and extravagance to keep your eyes glued to the screen, hunting for little details. Miller’s deliberately uncanny CGI visuals will prove divisive, but the sheer spectacle of the worlds he builds can’t be denied (though the very best shot of the film is one of the simplest).

You do feel like you’re in a place that very few movies have explored before, which is a thrill, but also makes it all the more annoying when Miller interrupts the action for another excursion back to Alithea’s hotel room. None of the Djinn’s stories are allowed to just play out in full before we get back to just more endless talking, which might have worked in a better cast and sharper-written film, but here ends up feeling like wheel-spinning.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is not just a story about stories, but is in fact a story about stories about stories, which is a meta touch too far, stopping it from pulling at the heartstrings. Never a convincing romance, but too intent on proving it is to just work as a smorgasbord of visual ideas, this is clearly a passion project for Miller, but something has got lost in translation on its way to an audience. From the mind behind one of the best films of the last decade, it’s a colossal disappointment.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is released in UK cinemas on 2 September.

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