Alithea tells stories about stories. For her, everything is tidy, intertextual, and academic in a story; stories take far less risk than real living. Constant study is its own kind of self-defense. If she does live, it is because she’s already learned how her story could go. She is solitary and without family, although she did once have a husband. She knows for sure that “there’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale.” She’s learned that working in narratology. Now she is going to a symposium on myth-making in Istanbul. She is giving a lecture about how “mythology is what we knew back then, science is what we know so far.” If you intellectualize everything, it is also safe and does not require emotional risks, unless you’re wrong. She spots a mythical figure in the audience and faints. Some ancient energy is speaking to her. After the convention, she meanders back to her hotel, first stopping in the market and buying a small glass piece which she promptly uncorks and releases a Djinn back in her hotel. She doesn’t want her wishes but the djinn pleads his case and shares the plight of his history.
Tilda Swinton plays Alithea and Idris Elba plays The Djinn. They are compelling actors and are compelling together, entrusted by the great populism-with-a-message director George Miller (of Babe: Pig in the City (1998) fame), who wrote the screenplay with his daughter Augusta Gore based on the titular short story in the collection The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (1994) by A.S. Byatt. A contemporary spin on One Thousand and One Nights (c. 1707 – 1721), the story blends the modern day with a colorful ancient past, whereby a character who only lives in stories finds out how to live for real once she’s enchanted by a mythological being’s own stories.
We live out The Djinn’s past as he narrates it to Alithea in a hotel room (cleverly, she is assigned Room 411 at the Pera Palace Hotel — where Agatha Christie famously wrote Murder on the Orient Express (1934)). The film is very literally an expository dump, in which Elba, slightly enlarged or sometimes standing on a stool to tower over Swinton a little bit, explains why he has trust issues. They stand around in bath robes and mostly talk about his past and not really hers. She tries to put The Djinn back in the bottle but that’s a wish he can no longer grant, having been scorned so many times. He was once entranced with his very furry-legged (his emphasis) Sheba until she met King Solomon, and The Djinn found out as a voyeur of a passionate moment, gets locked into a small glass case, where he is only freed to grant wishes, and largely shunned back in once he’s no longer found to be an object of desire.
The movie floats ponderously. As the character in the novella would say, it’s “floating redundant,” a favorite phrase of hers parsed from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (c. 1608 – 1674), which has more to do with the written story than the George Miller movie. So much of the energy is lost on its way to the screen. What does land is an overburdened version of the same tale: weighty without impact; funny without being light-hearted; romantic without creating its own kind of longing; a story about stories without too much story of its own but a lot of expositional detail and plot. What happens outside of what The Djinn describes also flattens the image, especially when Miller moves the plotting forward into modern day London and really confuses some of the symbols and characters of the story (not to mention playing with some racial tropes around ownership and magical beings). It is only lightly uncomfortable but only because the film so rarely rises above being more than lightly anything, despite such heaviness in its approach. This mismatch of shape and purpose is fundamental to its undoing.
It’s easy enough for George Miller to tell a story like this. He still seems like a natural at it. Even the sometimes-questionable digital effects do not really matter. His vision is good enough to make the screen. We’re just left wondering where the rest of the movie is, or if the ponderously talkative two-hander is all it’s meant to be. And it kind of drones on, by the second and third iteration of The Djinn’s stories, losing out on its intensive literary qualities that make the source material sing for vaguely cinematic qualities, which do play into heightened visualizations of a lost past, but become less readable as it progresses. The film goes and goes until it dissipates into a murky haze. Good actors do not especially save it because there isn’t much beyond them, it’s not their fault, or maybe anyone’s. A small distraction before Miller finishes Furiosa. Just imagine that he could’ve made Babe 3 instead.