Three Thousand Years of Longing

While at an academic conference in Istanbul, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) buys an ornate glass bottle at a market.  It turns out to hold a Djinn (Idris Elba), who offers her three wishes for his freedom.  Doubting he is real and wary of the offer, the narratologist is treated to tales of "Three Thousand Years of Longing."

Laura's Review: B-

Cowriter (with Augusta Gore)/director George Miller ("Mad Max: Fury Road") adapts A.S. Byatt’s 1994 short story ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ as a mythical anthology with a modern day wraparound story that is best summed up with the old saying ‘if you love someone, set them free; if they come back to you, it was meant to be.’  The film boasts elaborate, colorful visuals more based in Hollywood fantasy than the ancient lands in which they are set, placing this more squarely in Miller’s “Babe” oeuvre than the harsh world of “Mad Max.”  The film largely works because of the contrast and eventual romance between Swinton’s rational academic and Elba’s emotional genie, but it suffers from its hotel room setting and erratic pacing.

Professing to be solitary by choice, Alithea’s academic thesis is based on ancient humankind’s need to explain natural phenomena before science did it for them, so she’s quite taken aback upon arrival in Istanbul’s airport to be greeting by a very short man with glowing eyes, a man only she appears to see.  By the time she tries to scrub her antique purchase in her hotel bathroom, the giant Djinn who rolls out in a cloud of glittering purple smoke with be the third fantastical creature she’s seen.  When she tells the Djinn that she’s well aware every story about genies offering wishes is a cautionary tale and that she has no intention of asking for one, he begins to draw her out first through her own story – notably a childhood with an imaginary friend – before presenting his own case that he needs to grant her her heart’s desire in order to be freed himself.

What follows are the Djinn’s four tales of how he remained in captivity despite being freed multiple times.  He, an immortal being made of fire, loved the Queen of Sheba (the stunning Aamito Lagum), a mortal made of dust, but she responded to the wooing of King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad), who outwitted him by capturing him in a brass lamp and depositing it at the bottom of the Red Sea.  After some 2,500  years the lamp became embedded in a rock used to build a wall which was dislodged when slave girl Gulten (Ece Yüksel) clambered up it to view the man she loved from afar, Prince Mustafa (singer-songwriter Matteo Bocelli).  She, of course, wished for him to love her, only to be brought down by the betrayal of his father, Sultan Suleiman’s (Lachy Hulme), lover Hürrem (Megan Gale) before requesting that third wish that would ensure the Djinn’s release.  The third story also features power and betrayal as well as a fleshy fetish, the movement of the Djinn’s lamp his only forward progress before being gifted to the third wife of a wealthy merchant.  The Djinn encourages Zefir’s (Burcu Gölgedar) talent for invention, but his love for her makes him possessive, a flaw which finds him encased in the glass bottle Alithea buys.

These tales feature such magical elements as black skin glittering like gold and Solomon’s duduk, an ancient woodwind instrument which special effects artists envision as a living thing, claws and paws accompanying Solomon's playing.  There is a cell lined with sable where a threatened younger son indulges his desires with particularly plump women, his favorite named Sugar Lump (Anna 'Betty' Adams).  Yet when we return to Alithea’s hotel room, everything is white, the woman herself clad in colorless hotel robe, her wet hair in turbaned towel.  Thankfully, both Swinton and Elba feature cinematic faces highlighted by "Mad Max: Fury Road" director of photography John Seale, but the difference from past to present, perhaps intended a blank slate for storytelling, is stark.

Alithea does, of course, eventually make a wish, one which sees her return to London with the Djinn where he faces new complications while she, embracing love, tries to gentle her bigoted biddy neighbors.  But while the story ends on a satisfying note, its theme underlined, it really begins to sputter going into the home stretch, editor Margaret Sixel fading to black between short, choppy scenes.  “Three Thousand Years of Longing” doesn’t flow so much as move in fits and starts between talky scenes in bland backgrounds and narrated fantasy, its stars the connective tissue that keeps it afloat.

Robin's Review: B

Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is a scholar of legends and travels to Istanbul for a “gathering to tell stories about telling stories.” While there, she buys an old and pretty bottle and, when she cleans it, she releases a Djinn (Idris Elba) who offers her three wishes for his freedom in “Three Thousand Years of Longing.”

I went through director George Miller’s filmography and the man who brought us the “Mad Max” franchise also brought us “Babe: Pig in the City (1998)” and “Happy Feet (2006),” So, a spin on “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” seems well within Miller’s skill set as he and Augusta Gore adapt the A.S. Byatt short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.”

When Alithea cleans the bottle and unleashes the genie, he is a giant, filling her hotel room almost to bursting. She closes her eyes and counts to three and opens them – and the giant is still there. The scholar questions her own sanity, at first, then the academic in her takes over and she begins to question the Djinn, This is where his point of view is given and why he was trapped in the bottle for millennia by an evil wizard.

This is the point where “Three Thousand Years of Longing” could have been a great movie. Instead, it is a good movie that went a bridge too far in explaining the Djinn’s existence. Like Scheherazade, the Djinn, turned normal size and speaking English for Alithea’s benefit, tells the scholar his many-lives-lived story.

Each tale is a cinematic extravaganza of production, with each looking great and interesting. But, each story also hits you over the head that the Djinn just wants to be a free genie one or two too many times. As I said, good, not great, and Swinton and Elba are a treat to watch.

MGM/UA releases "Three Thousand Years of Longing" in theaters on 8/26/22.