Review: George Miller Tells—and Shows—Incredible Stories in Three Thousand Years of Longing

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I have a soft spot for films about the magic powers that spoken-word storytelling can conjure, whether it’s simply a filmed performance of, for example, Spaulding Gray, or a more elaborate exercise commenting on what a good talker can bring to a story (check out Tarsem’s The Fall). This can be true even if the narrator is unreliable but seems committed to making the story as much fun for the listener as possible. The latest example of this is director George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, a romantic fantasy between Dr Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), an academic, and a Djinn (Idris Elba, playing a genie-like creature, complete with pointy ears). He gives her three wishes, but while she contemplates her options, he shares with her his life story set across the ages, granting wishes to various owners of the vessel in which he resides.

Based on the short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt, and co-written by Miller and Augusta Gore, the film begins by simply allowing us to observe Swinton go through her day visiting Istanbul, where she is speaking at a conference. At one of the local markets, she picks up a glass vial, and in the process of cleaning it back in her hotel room, the Djinn emerges larger than life but eager to grant the wishes so he can be set free. One of the things Miller acknowledges is that the life of a Djinn is difficult because spending so much time cramped up, alone with your thoughts, has to be taxing on one’s psyche. The Djinn is slightly insane and very expressive because he spends hundreds of years at a time being quiet and isolated. He slowly shrinks down to a relatively normal size, puts on a robe (like Alithea does), and the two just begin talking about their lives.

She is the product of a broken long-term relationship, likely having resigned herself to a solitary life. But the Djinn attempts to invoke her more passionate side by weaving fantastical stories of his exploits and how he was often misused by previous wishers. The good professor is concerned about choosing wishes because she’s heard the cautionary tales of Djinn twisting them into something the asker clearly did not want. But she’s also a professor specializing in mythology and storytelling, so she is swept away by the Djinn’s tales of ancient times that involve romance, corruption, betrayal, and plain-old bad luck. Being a visual craftsman, Miller is clearly in his element bringing these stories to the screen, but honestly, if he’d simply left the cameras on Elba telling his tales, I would have likely been just as satisfied with this film. Showing us everything also denies us the ability to use our imaginations in interpreting these stories, which is not meant as a criticism of Miller’s work, but it keeps the film from being truly great.

Technically, a great deal of Three Thousand Years of Longing is just two people in robes talking in a hotel room, and having just seen that in Good Luck to You, Leo Grnade, that would have been perfectly acceptable. When the film stays in that realm, it feels both completely grounded and also otherworldly as Elba casts a spell with just his voice and his devotion to the art of storytelling. The Djinn is attempting to seduce Alithea, in a way, by appealing to her spoken-word devotion. It’s mesmerizing watching these two powerhouse actors maneuver in each other’s space, and when the film finally does leave the confines of the hotel room, its loses some of its appeal, as the hypnotic spell of their conversation is broken and the tale becomes more conventional. The Djinn simply wants to end this torturous cycle (he can’t be free until all three wishes are granted, and many of his stories end with previous owners stopping short and putting him back in his bottle). We’re not even sure for most of the movie if he can be trusted, but he’s learned over time that being tricky will only lead to Alithea being too afraid to figure out what she most desires. Their dance is tense, erotic, and finally beguiling enough that she takes the bait and begins her wishing.

Considering how strong the opening moments of the film are, as well as the relationship between the two characters, it’s perhaps not surprising that the final act is a bit of a letdown (why do we need to know that Alithea has racist neighbors?). But Swinton and Elba are two of the most compelling and watchable actors the planet has to offer, and to have them deep in conversation for so long almost seems decadent at times. It’s not one of Miller’s standout works and it certainly doesn’t come anywhere close to his other genre works, but Three Thousand Years of Longing has its moments, a compelling theme about the power of the spoken word, as well as two lead actors who a lot of viewers say they could watch in anything. This film may test that theory.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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