George Miller followed Happy Feet Two, a musical cartoon sequel about dancing penguins, with Mad Max: Fury Road, a magnificently unhinged science-fiction action extravaganza, so perhaps it makes sense that he should have changed gears again for his latest release, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Adapted from AS Byatt’s novella, The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eyes, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a sincere, thoughtful romantic fantasy about a literature professor and a djinn (genie) having a conversation. Whatever Miller’s fans might have been expecting of him, they weren’t expecting that.
Dr Alithea Binnie, played by Tilda Swinton with a northern accent and school-marmish glasses, specialises in “narratology”, which sounds like an academic field made up for The Da Vinci Code, but is actually the study of narrative structure. She is at a conference in Istanbul when she buys a stripy glass bottle from a shop in the Grand Bazaar, and then polishes it with her electric toothbrush in her hotel room. Before she can say “Aladdin”, a djinn appears, as played by Idris Elba with pointed ears and furry legs – and once you see Elba towering over Swinton, with his rumbling voice and his sweet mixture of authority and self-doubt, you can’t picture anyone else in the role.
He offers to grant her the traditional three wishes, but Alithea – who is oddly unfazed by this turn of events – has read enough books to know that djinns can be tricky and that wishes can be dangerous, so she won’t commit herself until they have sat in their white fluffy dressing gowns and got to know each other. As she listens, he recalls the previous times he was released from his bottle, and the film flashes back to various yarns about foolish sultans, angry princes and wily concubines through the centuries. The djinn, it transpires, repeatedly gets into trouble by trying to help women. Will Alithea be one of them?
Three Thousand Years of Longing is bound to gain a cult following among literature students, fairy-tale buffs, and anyone who sees themselves as being as geeky and emotionally cut-off as its determinedly single heroine. (As the title suggests, one of the film’s main themes is the desire to love and be loved.) For everyone else, it’s reassuring that such an eccentric and personal passion project exists – and with a largely non-English-speaking cast, to boot. You can file it alongside the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Cloud Atlas, or one of Terry Gilliam’s later works, as pleasing evidence that an auteur can still sometimes make an extravagant exotic fantasy with an indie sensibility.