Three Thousand Years of Longing grants your wish for cinema magic

Idris Elba is a genie in a bottle, baby.
Three Thousand Years Of Longing

Tilda Swinton stars as Alithea Binnie and Idris Elba as The Djinn in director George Miller’s film. // Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.

“Movie magic” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days (partly thanks to those now-legendary Nicole Kidman AMC promos), but few contemporary films actually merit that term. It’s true we’ve become accustomed to receiving mud-colored, effects-laden ‘splodathons practically monthly, but it’s increasingly rare that any of them actually feel magical.

It’s like having what was once your favorite junk food fed to you three times a day until not only was it no longer special, but you grew to resent it.

Fortunately, this year has been peppered with welcome reminders of why we fall in love with movies in the first place (or, at least, why I fell in love with them): their potential to be exquisitely weird.

Everything Everywhere all at Once was gleeful, childlike and surprisingly profound. Nope was thoughtful, experimental and reverent. Now, to finish out the trilogy (unless something else comes along—we should be so lucky) comes George Miller’s maximalist fantasy Three Thousand Years of Longing.

As Mad Max: Fury Road reminded us, any new Miller film is cause for celebration. His latest just about lives up to the hype, even if it’s a touch lopsided. Adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt, Miller’s film introduces us to Alithea (Tilda Swinton), an academic attending a conference in Istanbul, who purchases a mysterious glass bottle at the Grand Bazaar. 

It turns out the bottle contains a Djinn (Idris Elba), whose freedom depends on granting Alithea’s three wishes. As an expert on folklore and mythology, however, Alithea knows the catches that come with wishing. To convince her, the Djinn recounts his life story, along the way helping the solitary Alithea realize she may want to make some changes in her life after all.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is obsessed with the power of stories and the reasons we tell them, both in the historical sense of myths and legends and the narratives we buy into today that shape our worldviews. The first half of the film—focused on the Djinn’s personal history—is easily the most captivating in that regard. These stories are full of strange creatures, rich set decoration and appropriately disorienting, color-drenched cinematography from Fury Road DP John Seale.

When it comes to depicting Alithea’s relationship with the Djinn after the two of them leave Istanbul and arrive at her home in London, that thrall weakens somewhat. Simply put, Miller seems more interested in exploring the historical fantasy of the Djinn’s world (hard to blame him, there’s a lot to play with), and less curious about investigating that character and the film’s themes in a modern context.

The result is that Alithea’s life, the stories that surround her, and her growing connection to the Djinn feel less developed, making the film’s third act feel rushed and simplistic. Given the level of detail up to that point, it’s a little unsatisfying.

At 108 minutes, Three Thousand Years of Longing can feel as tightly packed as an all-powerful genie in an itty-bitty bottle. Miller’s film is full of epic potential, with not quite enough space to breathe. However, it’s rare we get something so creatively ambitious and strange on a studio budget like this, and much of what’s here is incredible, dramatic disappointment aside.

You can still expect to be appropriately dazzled, even if you come away wanting more.

Categories: Movies