An extraordinary stylist, Director George Miller (Babe, Mad Max: Fury Road) gets to go full bore into fantastic visual images with his latest movie Three Thousand Years of Longing. It’s mostly a series of short vignettes centering around the experiences of the main character set across thousands of years. This allows Miller to cut loose with different styles and fantastical interludes as the story stretches over time. It’s a magical fantasy romance movie that swings big and connects for something wondrously unique.
Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is an academic studying stories across humanity, even though she deals with visions that frequently haunt her waking hours. But she just waits for the visions to pass and moves along with her day. It is a solitary life but she enjoys it. One day she finds an antique bottle and out pops a Djinn (Idris Elba) who has been imprisoned for thousands of years and he needs Alithea to make three wishes so he can be free. But Alithea knows a lot about stories and that Dijnn’s are tricksters, so her wishes would inevitably be doomed to sadness. The Djinn says that he is a kind Genie in a Bottle and tells her stories about how his past masters came to failure and trapped him away for centuries at a time. If Alithea makes her wishes she could find happiness with the Djinn although this high tech world he finds himself in may be too much for him to bear.
Elba and Swinton anchor the movie as most of their time together consists of chilling out in bathrobes in a swanky hotel room as the Djinn relates his various tales of woe. They have some good banter, like when Alithea says that wishes always end in tragedy by telling an old joke and the Djinn finishes the punchline, agreeing with her that these things end badly. And the stories that he tells her often involve heartbreak, death and imprisonment. Djinn’s existence is tragic as even with magical powers the decisions of greedy and fallible humans inevitably causes everything to crumble.
The tragedy in his stories of him always ending up cast aside makes the burgeoning romantic connection between the two more profound. Their chemistry works well because the final act involves them together as the Djinn attempts to live in the modern world. As he’s a supernatural creature composed of electromagnetic elements that conflict with transmitters and wi-fi bouncing around. Swinton’s Alithea is seemingly emotionless academic, and when she says she doesn’t want for anything the Djinn questions if she has any emotion. But eventually she develops an emotional connection with the magical creature. The bigger question is has Alithea finally snapped and been overcome by her own delusions. The film plays it deliberately vague but a satisfying answer is given which works for the emotional journey.
Elba as the Djinn ably delivers with pathos lots of voice over about the various disasters and years of isolation he has endured. There’s a moment when he talks about how he spent thousands of years alone trapped in a bottle at the bottom of the ocean and he says he went from rage, to begging, to reliving his life and then rage again. And his desire for Alithea to make her wishes so he can return to his land of Djinn is a release from the drudgery of his existence. It’s not all deep emotional sadness, though. When he first appears to Alithea he disinterestedly points out the rules of his wishes like she cannot wish for more wishes or eternal life. Then on a whim he pulls out Albert Einstein out of a TV into the real world where Einstein is terrified. It’s strange, weird, and magically amusing.
The stories Djinn tells about his life are sweeping tales from different time periods. Each has little fantastical asides with awesome visual moments. The first story is an old school Biblical epic about Djinn and his love for the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), until she was seduced by King Solomon who cast the Djinn into the sea. The contrast between this wondrous world and the harshness of modern life is almost painful to the Djinn. His second story is a comedic farce/historical epic about a woman wanting to seduce a king and his sons taking over the kingdom. The contrast between the two sons, one is a deadly warrior and the other is a soft guy living in a single room, is huge. The third and most heartbreaking story he tells is about a woman who yearns for knowledge and deliverance from her old husband, so the Djinn gives her access to all the knowledge in the world. These stories are like three different movies inside of the larger narrative and each one has their own moment of quirkiness, spectacle and sorrow.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a strange, weird, wild film. Even though the Djinn has lived for thousands of years, his emotional tragedy is all too human. The movie is able to dip in and out of different types of genres and stylistic tones for a sweeping story with a heartfelt centre.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
Director: George Miller
Starring: Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton