Of all the things writer-director George Miller has been called over the past 40-plus years of his career, “predictable” isn’t on the list. It’s frequently hard to reconcile the fact that the same man who made the gleefully violent Mad Max movies — including 2015’s beloved action extravaganza Mad Max: Fury Road — also directed the animated dancing-penguin movies Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, the deeply odd family-movie sequel Babe: Pig in the City, the John Updike literary adaptation The Witches of Eastwick, and the Oscar-nominated historical drama Lorenzo’s Oil.
While these films range wildly in tone and focus, it may be easiest to take them all as the same body of work by considering that they’re all essentially fables. Some are aimed more at children and some more at adults, but in all cases, Miller’s stories are about mythic quests and the people using those quests to figure themselves out.
His latest film, Three Thousand Years of Longing, is more obviously mythic than most. In a tale adapted from A.S. Byatt’s 1994 short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” modern-day scholar Alithea (Tilda Swinton) accidentally frees a bottled djinn (Idris Elba), who regales her with three millennia of his adventures, loves, and losses. In sharp contrast with the restrained excess and practical effects of Fury Road, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a CG extravaganza, full of voluptuous fantasy settings, odd fantasy creatures, and swoony fairy-tale narrative.
In this exclusive clip, a wholly unprepared Alithea gets her first glimpse at the djinn, who has a bit of trouble adapting to the size of 21st-century hotel rooms.
The scene is a very literal translation of Byatt’s words in the story, apart from Alithea’s name change:
And out of the bottle in her hands came a swarming, an exhalation, a fast-moving dark stain which made a high-pitched buzzing sound and smelled of woodsmoke, of cinnamon, of sulphur, of something that might have been incense, of something that was not leather, but was? The dark cloud gathered and turned and flew in a great paisley or comma out of the bathroom. I am seeing things, thought Dr. Perholt, following, and found she could not follow, for the bathroom door was blocked by what she slowly made out to be an enormous foot, a foot with five toes as high as she was, surmounted by yellow horny toenails, a foot incased in skin that was olive-coloured, laced with gold, like snakeskin, not scaly but somehow mailed…
The foot began to change shape. At first it swelled and then it diminished a little, so that Gillian could have squeezed round it, but thought it more prudent not to try. It was now the size of a large armchair, and was drawn back, still diminishing, so that Gillian felt able to follow.
Miller prudently leaves out the part Byatt goes on to describe, about how the massive djinn, folded uncomfortably into her room, is wearing a short robe that doesn’t cover his genitals. Or how, as he shrinks down a bit at a time to fit on her bed, he leaves his junk until the last, so at one point he’s “almost hidden behind the mound of his private parts, which he then shrank and tucked away. It was almost a form of boasting.” Now that’s mythic.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is in theaters on Aug. 26.