Movies · Reviews

‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ is an Overly-Sentimental Ode to the Power of Stories

George Miller’s highly-watchable latest stars Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton as a Djinn and “narratologist.”
Idris Elba in Three Thousand Years Of Longing
United Artists
By  · Published on August 25th, 2022

Mad Max franchise director George Miller returns to the big screen with Three Thousand Years of Longinga modern fairy tale based on a story by A. S. Byatt and featuring a script by Miller and Augusta Gore. The film, which offers an idealistic, sometimes hokey treatise on the power and necessity of myths and storytelling, is barely saved by its striking imagery and pair of exquisite performances from two of the great performers in movies today.

Tilda Swinton plays Dr. Alithea Binnie, a “narratologist” who lives a voluntary life of solitude. While in Istanbul for a conference, she buys a small bottle from a local shop. Once back at her hotel, a Djinn (Idris Elba) emerges from the bottle and offers her three wishes. If she consents, he will finally be free for good. Unlike the average person, who would presumably be thrilled to have three chances to obtain whatever they like, Alithea’s expertise leads her to a different conclusion. She knows how these stories end. She knows the danger of letting one’s impulses and naked desires get the better of them.

As Alithea resists temptation, the Djinn begins to tell the story of his life. He shares tales in which he failed to grant three wishes and thus was sentenced back to purgatory in the bottle. Most of the film takes place in flashbacks, with the Djinn acting as the narrator. Movie lovers need not worry about this being an overly verbose tale, though, as Miller and cinematographer John Seale pair the Djinn’s tales with imagery worthy of Elba’s impeccable voiceover and performance. He tells us of his encounters with Sheba and Solomon, of granting an enslaved woman’s wish for an Ottoman prince to fall in love with her, and a genius in the 1850s with whom he eventually fell in love.

Each of the stories the Djinn recounts in Three Thousand Years of Longing features the kind of superb action sequences one would expect from Miller. While it may be the story of Swinton’s character, it is Elba who commands the bulk of the narrative. The actor strikes the delicate balance between the cerebral and the physical, essential for an action hero who needs to be cunning in both mind and body. In a sense, the Djinn becomes a stand-in for the filmmaker. A genie turns a wish into a reality. A filmmaker creates images from words. Not until the Djinn puts his own interpretation on a wish does it become real.

The worlds and stories Miller and Elba co-create are the lifeblood of the film. It becomes easy to see how one could be lost in the rhythms and drama of it all forever, and eventually, Swinton’s character does. While robed in her hotel room, the two banter about the standard topics: myths, love, betrayal, passion, trauma, and desire. Watching the two interact on screen is the film’s great highlight. Let no one ever say again that there are no more movie stars.

Miller has long shown a preoccupation with myths. Recall the end of Mad Max 2when the narrator remembers his encounter with the Road Warrior as a young boy. In the voiceover, one feels the passage of time, the porous nature of memory, and the impact that stories have on lives. Three Thousand Years of Longing offers a similarly sentimental view of storytelling. When the Djinn finishes his tale, the two consummate their relationship. The message is clear: stories are what bring people together. Stories are love.

The spectacle of the Djinn’s tale ultimately becomes undermined by a meandering final act that attempts to connect the past with the present. The two return to Alithea’s home in Britain, and she’s obviously changed as a result of their time together. The film begins and ends with Alithea’s narration, sharing her story of life with the Djinn. With the Djinn’s tale, Miller’s gift for the fantastic and the sentimental are on full display. One feels the precision and care given to these more idealistic elements of storytelling, but in dealing with the real-world implications of stories, the film struggles to find exactly what to say. Replace the myths of centuries past with the real world, and the film loses its center.

Thus, the emphasis on the romantic feels a bit dated in contemporary life. The real question is not whether stories matter but who is privileged enough to tell them. Each of the Djinn’s stories deals with issues of class, gender, and race, all of which can and should reveal something about the world. The final act of Three Thousand Years of Longing makes a weak attempt at this connection, making for a disappointing and trivial build-up. By ultimately shying away from engaging head-on with such issues, the film feels dated. Romance and passion certainly matter, but after thousands of years of history, they cannot be the only thing.

Three Thousand Years of Longing debuts in theaters on August 26, 2022. Watch the film’s trailer here.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.