Photo: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer
One of the last true maniacs, George Miller, has returned to Cannes after a seven-year hiatus from filmmaking Three thousand years of longinga messy, maximalist fairy tale within a fairy tale within a fairy tale (about fairy tale telling) that feels like his answer The Prince’s Bride. The film, which premiered last night at the festival to a six-minute standing ovation and mixed to favorable reviews, has Miller’s trademark goofiness, seriousness, gloom and whimsicality. It’s imperfect – there are some oddly low-quality CGI moments, a few insulting visual jokes, and a final section that addresses Brexit and colonialist racism in a way that feels a little on the nose and forced – but ultimately impossible to resist his big hearted, hopeful, insane madness. Miller, who has been working patiently since the ’90s to adapt this short story by AS Byatt, shares a story about the importance of storytelling. It’s pure intent and childish in its sense of wonder, but it doesn’t skimp on the weirdness – there are supernatural sex scenes, a man whose head explodes into spiders, a fur-lined sex prison, Idris Elba with elf ears, and the occasional reference to size an entire hotel room, and older ladies who call Tilda Swinton a “fuckface”.
Tilda Swinton plays the “narrator” Dr. Alithea Binnie – perhaps the second most reminiscent of Tilda Swinton’s name given to Tilda Swinton after “Tilda Swinton” – who travels the world lecturing on the purpose of storytelling through the ages. After one such lecture in Istanbul, she buys a blue bottle from an antique shop and goes back to her hotel room (which happens to be the one where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express), scrubs the bottle thoroughly with her electric toothbrush and out comes a gigantic Idris Elba covered in gold spots and scales. He is a Djinn who has been trapped for the specified amount of time and is desperate to be freed.
All the Djinn wants is, Dr. To grant Binnie three wishes so he can get away from our noisy modern cities, and all she wants is to avoid this, having spent her lonely but academically fulfilling life studying tales of wish-granting end badly. To convince her otherwise, the Djinn tells her detailed stories about his life, his various imprisonments and the women he has loved and seduced with his otherworldly wisdom (he learns modern English from a TV screen in a matter of seconds). and sexual prowess (something related to smoke and glitter). As the film jumps from the small hotel room – where Elba and Swinton spend most of the film conversing in bathrobes – into the far broader, CGI-filled worlds of the Ottoman Empire and the bedchambers of the Queen of Sheba, it succeeds him to hold on to his Miller-esque tone, that specific combination of bizarre sweetness.
At the press conference the next morning, Swinton, Elba and Miller were asked not once but twice what their own three wishes might be (visibly exhausted by the question, they mostly hesitated and expressed their hopes for the film, but Elba agreed after an “Electric Ferrari”). They happily told how it came about that they had all worked together. Swinton — a self-proclaimed Miller “superfan” who says she tells her kids, “That’s enough pig” when they complete a chore — and Miller met by chance at a luncheon in Cannes five years ago: “I was invited celebratory lunch and I was very shy and I didn’t know many people there and I sat across from someone I didn’t know. And we just got into a very nice conversation. After about 15 minutes I realized it was George Miller,” she said, laughing. “And that was it. The die was cast. We hung out all day. In the evenings we sat with Bong Joon Ho. That was a very good table. We became friends pretty quickly and deeply.” About a year later, Miller sent her the script via email.”I don’t pick roles. I pick people,” Swinton added. “And I always have, and it’s served me really well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” .I won’t change it now.”
“You choose your directors, they don’t choose you,” said a delighted Miller. “It was clear to me very early on that I had joined the big club of directors with whom Tilda had worked not just once, but several times. I had the first taste… I hope we’ll do something different in the future.” Swinton, who previously joked that she wished she’d been asked Mad Max: FuriosaShe jumped in: “I have witnesses!”
Elba and Miller met at the BAFTAs a few years ago, where Miller’s wife and longtime film editor Margaret Sixel said the only person she wanted to meet at the awards show was Elba. “I didn’t think he knew who I am,” laughed Elba. “A year later, my agent calls me and says, ‘George Miller would like to speak to you.’ After I fainted and got up off the floor, I started talking to George.” Elba was the only actor Miller had ever considered for the role, which required an actor with the ability to be both down-to-earth and that Project fantastic. “Fortunately, if I hadn’t met you and gotten a strong feeling for you, I would have had no idea who could play the Djinn. To be honest, I haven’t been able to name anyone to this day. I’m sure there are a lot of people,” Miller said. “There’s no other actor that could do that,” joked Elba.