As far as smaller scale passion projects go, George Miller is still taking a pretty big swing with the fantasy film Three Thousand Years of Longing. It’s only small compared to something like Mad Max: Fury Road. The movie has noble ambitions and some great talents involved, but while the artistry is here, the execution on a story level comes up short. That’s a real shame, too, since this could have been one of the most distinctive efforts of the year. As it stands, Three Thousand Years of Longing certainly stands out visually, but you’ll find yourself held way more at a distance than you might have expected.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is great looking and well acted, but as much as it seeks to grab you, you’re surprisingly left cold. Miller has a similar problem to what Ang Lee had (for me) with Life of Pi. That film failed because it claimed it would tell a story that would make you believe in god. It didn’t. Here, the tales of the flick are meant to make you swoon and believe in large scale love. For me, Miller is off the mark.
For Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), loneliness has just been part of her life, with love taking a backseat to academics. The scholar believes in reason, which is about to get tested during a trip to a conference in Istanbul. Picking up a small bottle at a bazaar, she happens to rub it back at her hotel and out comes a Djinn (Idris Elba), who unsurprisingly offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. Having read all the books and seen all the movies, Alithea is skeptical, doubting that he’s real, first of all, and also being aware of how wrong it could all go for her. This is a problem for the Djinn, so he opts to plead his case with stories of his past adventures.
As Alithea listens to the Djinn, we see the stories, involving Kings, Princes, and concubines. After a final story involving an imprisoned wife and his relationship with her (as well as a fair amount of bickering between the two), she’s intrigued enough to actually make a wish. The surprising nature of said wish eventually throws both for a loop. I won’t say any more about the last act, which is much different than what’s come before, but it has a much lovelier vibe, even if it’s more or less what you might expect from the premise.
Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton have a strong rapport with each other. At the same time, there’s not much in the way of romantic chemistry, which the script doesn’t help much with. You buy them more as sparring partners than potential lovers. Still, Elba adds a soul to the Djinn and Swinton gives a sly playfulness to the academic. Supporting players here include Matteo Bocelli, Burcu Gölgedar, Lachy Hulme, Aamito Lagum, Nicolas Mouawad, and Ece Yüksel, but it’s the Elba and Swinton show.
Filmmaker George Miller is all about his visuals here. To be fair, Three Thousand Years of Longing looks great (kudos cinematographer John Seale) and his direction has a soft touch, even if it’s style over substance. At the same time, the script Miller penned with Augusta Gore drags, making the second act in particular a bit of a chore. A big part of the problem here is the stories told by Ebla’s Djinn don’t move the needle enough to justify Swinton’s Alithea coming around. You’re meant to swoon, but aside from the final story, you mostly just yawn.
Three Thousand Years of Longing disappoints because it has such luminous potential. By the end, you more or less feel in tune with the Djinn, but the human component is slightly lacking. The premise here should have been incredibly creative, potentially very sexy, and somewhat limitless in its possibilities. So, you’re just left wanting more than Elba, Swinton, and Miller can provide. Alas.