If you think about Three Thousand Years of Longing as an ethereal palate cleanser for George Miller between the dystopian rigors of Mad Max: Fury Road and the soon-to-shoot prequel, Furiosa, I suppose it kind of makes sense. And I suppose it makes sense within the distinctive filmography of “mad genius” Miller, as he’s described in the marketing; the Australian director has always had an interest in fairy tales, usually with a darkish edge, whether it’s Babe: Pig in the City, The Witches of Eastwick or even Happy Feet.
But this cerebrally sexy shot of One Thousand and One Nights-adjacent whimsy strains so hard for beguilement and timelessness that it’s ponderous and heavy. The film is basically an extended dialectic between a scholar of storytelling and mythology and a djinn she uncorks from a bottle purchased in a dusty Istanbul souk. Audiences eager to be enchanted by adult fairy tales might find something in the talky reflections on love and desire, on isolation and connection, the latter themes amplified by our recent memories of pandemic confinement. If that sounds like your thing, knock yourself out.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
The Bottom Line
Come back, Barbara Eden.
But my problem with this kind of Cinema with a capital “C” is its self-consciousness. Whenever filmmakers get all noble about the vital role of storytelling in our cold, impersonal world, I tend to glaze over. Three Thousand Years of Longing is well acted by two magnetic leads who spend most of their time in those nice plush hotel bathrobes, and it’s not like a million other movies, which is already a plus. But I struggled to find much depth of feeling in it. While there’s a liberal sprinkling of humor, the mysteries it conjures are windy and academic, though not the kind of academic that stands up to scrutiny.
Based on British author A.S. Byatt’s short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, and co-scripted by Miller and first-time screenwriter Augusta Gore, the film mostly takes place in an Istanbul hotel room. Tilda Swinton plays Eccentric Scottish Lady, a narratologist named Alithea Binnie with a sensible bob and regulation intellectual geek glasses, who dresses like a librarian and sees herself as independent and content. She’s in Turkey for a conference where she talks about the difference between mythology and science until a strange apparition in the audience causes her to faint onstage.
Shopping in the bazaar, she picks up a hand-blown glass bottle as a memento, and while she’s scrubbing it in the hotel bathroom, off comes the stopper and out pours a thick plume of colored smoke. Soon that smoke materializes into a giant Idris Elba, with a shaved head, pointy ears and a cool two-tone goatee. “Do not fear me, nor treat me casually,” he tells her, once they’ve established a common language. “I am beholden to you.” Which is exactly what you want every gleaming, gold-dusted naked stranger who turns up in your hotel room to say.
One of the most amusing aspects of the movie — and of Swinton’s characteristically batty-brainy performance — is the swiftness with which Alithea gets used to having a 3,000-year-old djinn for company. He offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. But she’s wary, having read too many wish-fulfillment stories that turn into cautionary tales. Besides, she thinks her new roommate might be a trickster.
Given that failure to grant wishes will doom the unnamed djinn to further confinement or even oblivion, he has to convince her. This he does by telling stories of his eventful past, three fantastical tales in which his weakness for mortal female companionship landed him back in the bottle for millennia.
The first of those stories centers on dazzling beauty Sheba (Aamito Lagum), who gets cozy with the djinn until His Royal Hotness King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) comes calling. Next up is an enslaved inhabitant of the Ottoman Empire , Gulten (Ece Yüksel), who sets her upwardly mobile sights on Prince Mustafa (Matteo Bocelli) to get her out of the Courtyard of Concubines. But treachery in the court of Sultan Suleiman (Lachy Hulme) breaks up that party. Finally, there’s Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), the third wife of an old merchant, who treats her like a toy, leaving the frustrated genius thirsty for knowledge that the djinn is happy to provide. But even he eventually feels the brunt of her anger as a woman trapped under the rule of men.
“Hope is a monster, Alithea, and I am its plaything,” the djinn tells her, trying the vulnerable card after going Hulk on her didn’t do much for his cause. But his tales have an aphrodisiacal effect on the scholar, who’s a sucker for a good yarn, even when they involve shoddy CG rendering that evokes bargain video games. Alithea starts sharing her stories too, and when she admits to desires she has long held in check, it seems possible this unlikely pair might meld their solitudes into one.
Miller’s take on the material mainly sacrifices the feminist elements of Byatt’s novella in favor of investigating the magic of movie storytelling. But the stories are only minimally involving, which kinda kills that plan. There’s some final-act business back in London that ruminates for a distracted second on the uses of enchantment in a modern world in which hate prevails and just about every wish can be instantly gratified by technology. Or something. In any case, Bruno Bettelheim can rest easy in his grave; Miller’s airy fairy tale doesn’t challenge his theories or pose any substantial new ones. Now, can we please get on with Furiosa?