To which magic lamp, monkey’s paw or wishing well does George Miller owe his career of improbable dream projects? For decades, this Australian writer-director and demolition derbyist has expended abundant resources in pursuit of quirky glory, splurging in the studio on dubious “family” menageries and increasingly elaborate dystopias. The pinnacle of his talent for turning a multiplex investment into a madman’s sandbox is, of course, his latest film, the jaw-dropping Mad Max: Fury Road, which was essentially a vision of what summer movies can be when made by real artists left to their own devices. What an impossible movie it was – and a tough act to follow too.
Then how has Miller followed his exhilarating saga of dirt, dust, fire, speed and mayhem? Ultimately, with a change of pace. His new movie, Three thousand years of nostalgia, is both larger and more compact than the previous one, swapping an endless expanse of desert for a hotel room; a few days of action for a story that literally spans millennia; and an uninterrupted barrage of vehicular carnage for extended scenes of two characters in bathrobes, politely discussing the true nature of desire over tea and chickpea treats. And yet, here, too, lies an impossible movie – a weird, haunting fairy tale for grown-ups, old-fashioned in its cerebral fantasy and low-budget magic. One could say that the success of road of fury paid for this more idiosyncratic fantasy, but that would be like saying Miller sold a unicorn to buy a pixie.
The aforementioned hotel is in Istanbul, where “narratologist” Alithea (Tilda Swinton) flew to a convention of book lovers dedicated to studying how humanity has always used stories to give meaning. meaning to existence. This rational and reasonable academic is so used to playing the observer, to burying herself in the written exploits of others, that it takes her a while to accept that she has stumbled upon her own fantastic feed. Her inciting incident is when she unwittingly releases an imprisoned spirit, initially massive like the giant genius of the 1940s. The Thief of Baghdad and filling nearly every inch of his hotel room with his bloated airship physique. Fortunately, he will soon shrink to the normal and more manageable proportions of Idris Elba.
The mythical shapeshifter is a djinn, and as he laments aloud, he’s been trapped in a bottle for centuries, tortured by loneliness, rage, and regret. Only by granting three wishes can he gain his freedom. But Alithea isn’t an easy sell on the idea. On the one hand, she’s read enough to be wary of wish-granter tricks and to know that wishes have an ironic way of backfiring on the wisher. More seriously, Alithea has become so passively satisfied with her life of seeking that she cannot think of any deep desires the jinn might grant her. (Given, again, that he looks like Idris Elba, you could call that a lack of imagination.)
Miller adapted this intoxicating fantasy from “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”, a short story by AS Byatt. The British author broke up the conversation between the human and the immortal with the occasional graphic of the backstory, the djinn regaling Alithea – named Gillian in the original text – with anecdotes from centuries of her checkered past. For Miller, these asides are an opportunity to play the anthologist and create his own nesting doll of fables in the key of Thousand and one Night. In other words, the film keeps jumping into miniature epics of flashback incidents, recounting the djinn’s unfortunate encounters with the Queen of Sheba, Suleiman the Magnificent, and a young bride more eager for knowledge than love.
As Alithea might note, none of these stories in the story are marvels of narrative sophistication, and they prevent Three thousand years of nostalgia to ever pick up anything close to the momentum of road of fury. But a tasty, archetypal digression is part of the charm of a film that grapples with the backbone of universal emotion that runs through generations of myth-making, connecting past to present and one culture to another. Above all, the vignette structure allows Miller and his cinematographer, John Seale, to escape the post-apocalyptic desert tones of the Mad Max films and revel in a painterly opulence of reds and greens. Their dynamic visual storytelling takes us from orgy halls to fiery battlefields, lingering over the occasional haunting image, like Elba dematerializing as he is sucked into his purgatory prison.
However, the film is at its most unusually enchanting in this hotel room, with two great actors making a meal of a strange situation and a discussion that slowly gains philosophical and romantic dimensions. Miller makes great use of Elba’s dashing leading man qualities, brooding and intensity; it’s the benevolent flip side of how he deployed Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick – a comparable blend of movie star charisma and the weirdness of a supernatural being.
Swinton, meanwhile, is perfectly portrayed as a no-nonsense, fun-loving bookworm who is unfazed by her unlikely circumstances, but who also gradually comes to understand that contentment and fulfillment aren’t the same thing. Is there a bit of Miller in this theater scholar? “I like flowers with geometric patterns best,” remarks the character near the end of Byatt’s original story. “More than those who aim for realism, to look real.” It could be a mission statement about how the director of The road warrior and Baby: Pig in the city has fabulously exaggerated our world – and for its preference for special effects that favor the whimsical awe of a magic trick over a state-of-the-art “convincing” illusion.
Three thousand years of nostalgia ends up veering in an unexpected direction, towards melancholy and a certain sexiness and ambivalence about the state of our technology now. The film’s questions about storytelling are really inquiries into the nature of humanity; it is a subject that Miller approaches through the gentle wisdom of a character whose eternal observation has left him with a certain affection for our species, for the “creatures of dust” defined by contradiction. Within the bewildered perspective of the jinn resides the spirit of this flawed but endearing oddity. And on his lamp, we would argue for more impossible movies like this.
Three thousand years of nostalgia is playing now in select theaters. To learn more about AA Dowd’s writings, please visit his Authory page.