And so, the meme-ification of Tilda Swinton continues. She can act, sure – she can act the living shit out of it – but Swinton’s star persona is surely at a point now where one finds it difficult to ever shake the presence of the actor herself, leaving the poor character she’s playing somewhere in her shadow. Not everyone may be ready to condemn the beloved cult superstar to the category of human-meme in the same way that Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage have been, for example, and the latter here is perhaps a case in point; Cage has gone to meta and back, reminding us powerfully in the last few years that he certainly has remarkable acting chops. There’s no arguing that Swinton can act, but for myself at least, I sometimes wish I could watch a film where her star presence suffocates her characters with slightly less intensity.
Which takes us to George Miller’s highly anticipated Three Thousand Years of Longing, now playing the Melbourne International Film Festival. In terms of Miller’s oeuvre, it’s certainly more Happy Feet than Fury Road, a reminder perhaps that Miller is a sentimentalist at heart. But as his screen adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick reminds us, Miller has a superpower for fantasy, whether it’s the high-octane, dark action fantasy of Mad Max or softer fare. Miller is a master world builder, and it’s here that he flourishes across a diverse range of films. Which nicely aligns with Three Thousand Years of Longing in its story-about-stories, but its syrupy, starry-eyed world view won’t make it for everyone.
The film follows Swinton as Alithea Binnie, a priggish narratologist who rubs a bottle she finds in an Istanbul junk shot and – ta-da! – out pops Idris Elba as a djinn to grant her three wishes and, even more importantly, to seduce her with tales of his adventures. But Alithea is an expert, and she knows the twist in the tail of the three-wishes trope like the back of her hand. So where does that leave her, the stories that leave her so awestruck, and those pesky three wishes that she knows she must make, with all their potentially booby-trapped outcomes?
Three Thousand Years of Longing is what it says on the packet; it’s a little sappy, but for most it will be satisfyingly so. It’s meta enough to not be dumb, however it does pale in the shadow of the film which it recalls the most, Tarsem Singh’s glorious The Fall from 2006. Once I made that connection, my engagement with Three Thousand Years of Longing admittedly began to waver, and I found myself struck by a desire to revisit Singh’s film instead of the one that I was watching – the Miller is a more mainstream, milquetoast variation of The Fall, and doesn’t come even close to matching this former film for heart and aesthetic flair. That being said, it does look great, thanks to Miller’s continuing collaborations with cinematographer John Seale and editor Margaret Sixel. But is it as good as The Fall? Not even close.