dir: Dr George Miller
It’s a real one.
It’s an unusual film, that’s for sure. Dr Miller has never been a director that’s just made one kind of film countless times.
The same chap who created Mad Max and directed its many sequels, who made family drama Lorenzo’s Oil, The Witches of Eastwick, the two Babe movies and animated monstrosity Happy Feet is also the chap who’s adapted an A.S. Byatt short story into whatever this strange, lush, romantic film is.
It is beautiful, that was the first word that came to mind as I was watching it. It’s visually lush, even if it’s mostly a film about two people sitting around a hotel room, telling stories.
Although, that’s not entirely true: they’re not both people, and more of the film focusses on depicting the stories being told themselves rather than the two beings in the Istanbul hotel room.
One of those beings, played by the supernaturally talented Tilda Swinton, is meant to be a human woman. And a British academic at that. She is a Professor of Narratology, which is a subject I guess exists in the real world but seems like it should only exist in fiction. Similar to Professors of Symbology, or studiers of HotGirlSummer-itis.
She studies stories, and knows all the stories. And she seems to see beings, creatures, people who aren’t really there, but who really seem to be there. We see them too.
Of all the people in Istanbul to stumble upon a bottle that contains a djinn, she is the one it happens to. And once she unleashes the supernaturally attractive and talented creature known as Idris Elba, he begins telling her the kinds of stories she’s been studying from many cultures for many years, in order to convince her to make her three wishes and release him from his millennia of captivity.
It wouldn’t sound like it would be a hard sell, but Alithea is not one for making decisions, or choices.
I wonder how obvious this is to point out, but her very name itself means “truth” in Greek. There’s also an extended scene when first they meet where they are conversing in Ancient Greek, in a manner that is murder on the ears but still warmed the cockles of my heart. He then, this massive creature, makes himself smaller in order to fit in the room.
I want to point out that though I don’t love the accent that Idris, great man that Idris is, uses in the film, I still love the performance. He is a djinn, a being of magic, smoke and fire, but he is vulnerable, especially to women. Many times over the course of his long life he has been tricked, compelled or ignored into captivity, and usually it’s been because of love.
Because of the countless stories of djinn wishing to trick people into making terrible wishes, and thus dooming the one making the wish, Alithea is supremely wary of him and his storytelling. She is convinced that he is out to ruin her, because she is convinced that all stories about djinn, and wishes, are cautionary tales. People make wishes without thinking through the implications of their wishes, without seeing how wanting the universe to suspend its rules for the benefit of one person would have catastrophic effects.
And it’s true that the people who make wishes in the djinn’s stories don’t get happy endings, as far as we know, but then ultimately who does in this or any other world? And the ones who don’t make wishes tend to do better.
But the purpose of his stories isn’t meant to be instructive, or to project a moral onto the screen; they are to convince her to actually connect to the world. She, a self-described seeker of solitude, protests that her distance from others and from the world is actually what she wants, what is proper to want. She is not wrong when she points out, perhaps unconvincingly, that not being too attached to the world (like the Stoics), that not suffering from the wanting of anything, be it material possessions or human connections (like a simplistic reading of the tenets of Buddhism), would actually make her an enlightened being in those traditions.
Seeing that written out on paper, I realise that it sounds like her character is a terrible, pretentious fuckhead. But it’s not at all how she comes across when she’s saying it. She just sounds like a defensive, lost person, who doesn’t even convince herself, let alone a 3000 year old supernatural being.
The djinn’s stories mostly are about wanting, about longing. He’s not human, so he’s not wanting and longing in ways that are the same as how we would experience it. But he knows enough to feel it the way we do, and he seems to believe that these short lives the rest of us live are only worth it because of it.
He could be wrong. He mostly makes the case that the wanting destroys everything and us along with it, but I’m not convinced he’s totally wrong. He makes the passion, the willingness to abandon oneself to the wanting, seem like one of the cosmic vital forces (as too do the film’s incredible visuals).
He wanted Sheba (Aamito Lagum), otherwise known as the Queen of Sheba, herself apparently part-djinn, but she didn’t want him; she barely cared at all for him. She barely cared at all for anyone until Solomon arrived a-courting. He plays her a song on an impossible instrument (which becomes the signature theme throughout the film), and she swallows, in a way that indicates something has changed.
This very image, this seemingly minor thing, is repeated much later in the film, by Alithea, during the last of his stories. Gee I wonder why?
But back in the past, Sheba sets all sorts of impossible tasks for Solomon, and he matches every one, including another motif repeated throughout the flick of having to find a single red thread somewhere in her castle. He even whispers to her what her heart’s most secret and most primal desire is, what all women desire. We, the audience, unfortunately, are never told.
All of them come to fruition, and the grand moment occurs where Solomon and Sheba finally get together.
And fuck, and in doing so, or at least during, Solomon traps the whining, complaining djinn and casts him into the ocean for the next thousand years.
When I say they fuck; this is not a film that shies away or implies a single thing. All I mean is characters have sex (I don’t mean for reals), and there is an incredible amount of nudity throughout. Let that be a warning to anyone (I can’t really imagine who) who might think because this is fantasy themed that it’s a family-friendly kids flick.
Oh gods no. The djinn goes through a process of being released after long periods of confinement, and captured again, as the people he tries to give the wishes too invariable fuck things up.
He tries to help Gülten (Ece Yüksel), who loves a young prince, but damn, everyone gets ruined in that story, which has jealous wives (famous Turkish actress Megan Gale) in the seraglio, monstrous sultans, sorcerers that can rip off their own heads and turns into a pile of spiders, and an abundance of assassins, and no happy ending for anyone.
The poor djinn, with wishes unfulfilled, is not only trapped in an in-between state, but unable to bug anybody for centuries, until he almost gets freed by a young prince destined to be a murderous sultan, and his weird brother who becomes obsessed with getting the most voluptuous concubines in all the realm.
These stories get dark, they get a bit (a lot) weird, but they were, at least to me, never less than intriguing. I find many choices that Miller makes as a director baffling, but that’s not always a negative. This isn’t cookie cutter storytelling by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not neat or compact storytelling, ever. It’s messy, like people, like life, and even when it’s not entirely satisfying, it’s still interesting.
His last story about a genius woman he was lucky enough to meet and doomed enough to lose, being the great Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), with all her brilliance, who is driven bonkers by her captivity, by the fact that her status as a woman means the world will never know of any of the things she’s worked out mathematically: This is the story that makes Alithea swallow in that particular way that means…something.
Does she relate to Zefir, does she see herself in her, does that strange kind of self-destroying love that the djinn ultimately experiences ultimately convince her to change, is that what does it?
No-one lays it out for us. Watch it and see for yourself. There is so much in this flick. I think it’s one of the flicks of the year. It’s not, with all that having been said, an overly emotional or overwhelming flick, at least not on first viewing. It keenly makes the argument that the world, and life itself, need to be felt with the heart as well as figured out with the head, that they are not mutually exclusive, that they not need be opposed to each other.
And it does all this with an incredible visual palate, and with a few extraordinary storytelling devices.
And there’re some weird cameos, as well. Not least of which are Madge from Neighbours in a small role, and the Sydney activist Danny Lim, who got brutally beaten up by the cops a couple of weeks ago, he has a tiny cameo as a storyteller within the story of a character who becomes obsessed with storytellers.
It’s also very obviously a film made in the covid era, hard to get away from such things, but that reminder of our fragility, of how it was that communities of people, and lots of other medical professionals working in concert, who kept many of us alive, despite the forces of stupidity ranting and raving their various cooker conspiracies.
I loved this film, and I have a feeling I didn’t even really scratch the surface in this review as to why. Idris and Tilda are supernatural beings already, and independent of this flick, but they worked beautifully together, and I was very glad to be here for it.
9 times I don’t even want to know why the sultan’s brother arm was sticky and wet in that strange scene in the sable fur-covered room out of 10
“We all have desires, even if they remain hidden from us. But it is your story, and I cannot wait to see where it goes.” – Three Thousand Years of Longing