It’s never been quite clear whether George Miller drives Mad Max or vice versa; the director’s other output suggests a rather different creative force from the popular post-apocalyptic franchise he’s best known for. Dancing penguins, talking pigs, vomiting New England witches, there’s a whimsical side to Miller that’s intermittently seen outside of the Thunderdome, but gets a full development in this dotty adaptation of a novella by AS Byatt. A magic-realist tale of a lovelorn djinn, it’s a weird and occassionally wonderful visual mood-piece that’s all about story and the meaning and importance of story, but unfortunately omits to pack one of its own.
Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is an expert on myth and storytelling who leaves London for a conference in Istanbul, where she has sinister visions in a lecture theatre and then finds a mysterious glass battle in a local bazaar. Inside the bottle is a djinn, played by Idris Elba with the joke-shop pointy ears that have been annoyingly prevalent recently in Avatar 2 and Black Panther; Wakanda Forever. Binnie doesn’t actually rub the lamp, she cleans it with an electric toothbrush in one of a number of neat narrative reversals that make Miller’s film just about watchable.
This is ‘a story about stories’. One’s heart sinks at the ease with some narratives proclaim themselves meta without much justification; it would be good to tell one story properly before announcing that you’re a master of the form. Binnie is a narratologist, so is wise to the djinn’s trickster game, preferring not to make wishes since the djinn’s mission is always corrective or at least ‘a cautionary tale’. So the djinn has to explain himself with a long and complicated multi-pack backstory which looks lush and stands in contrast to the tedious framing story about the djinn and Binnie exchanging placeholder dialogue in a hotel room, woodenly performed by Swinton and Elba.
Stories are told here, but the magic of drama does not emerge; Miller spends far more time on the mechanics of how to get a bottle through airport security than what should be the obvious centrepiece here, the coupling between human and an eternal spirit. Yes, there are monsters in the mix, we get a surprise trip to the Hadron Collider and an arresting musical interlude thanks to a Henson/Cronenberg instrument made of living creatures, but these details lead nowhere in particular and our main narrative craters with the lack of sexual tension between Elba and Swinton tangible throughout. ‘I find feelings through stories…’ says Binnie, ‘…they create meaning’. Wise words, but not particularly reflective of Miller’s lofty, high-minded, fancy-schmancy tale, which has striking music and creative visuals, but rarely manages to suggest anything resembling a living, breathing or meaningful story.