If there’s anything we know about making wishes granted by mythical beings, it is that they never turn out as one, well, wish. Three Thousand Years of Longing sees Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba as a narratologist Alithea Binnie, and a Djinn respectively. In love with stories, and stories about stories, Alithea travels around the world to “strange lands” – i.e. China, and Istanbul – to give lectures on science, myths and the legends we humans tell of them. As fate commands it, she finds a blue and white bottle in a souvenir store and in her attempt to clean it with an electric toothbrush, she accidentally breaks it and sets the Djinn trapped in it free.
Viewers are no strangers to how the story goes, especially if you’ve watched Disney’s Aladdin, are familiar with the tale of One Thousand and One Nights, or have even read A.S Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, that this romance/fantasy is based upon. Elba’s Djinn has to grant three wishes of the person who releases him, in order to free himself from entrapment and servitude but Alithea is weary.
Having read multiple stories of the trickster Djinn, she convinces herself and him that she desires nothing more in life. She’s content as an old single woman, free from the shackles of marriage and hence, doesn’t find the need to make a wish. Djinn then proceeds to tell her stories of his past masters, in hopes that she will trust his well-intentions and make her wishes.
Three Thousand Years of Longing claims to be a love story between the human narratologist and a Djinn, but frankly speaking, the movie is a love story to stories instead. Alithea narrates the overarching story of how she fell in love with a Djinn, and Djinn narrates his stories of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, a pregnant servant and King Mustafa, a bloodthirsty King Murad and plenty others. Each story is told like a fairytale, with fantastical effects, bright colours and over-the-top costuming. Where Three Thousand Years of Longing lacks in romance between the two stars, it makes up with pretty and weird visuals that take viewers on quite a trip.
Swinton is a talented actress, but her prim Alithea isn’t an exciting character, especially underneath the short and bland orange bob. Alithea is an academic that is supposed to feel quirky and perhaps ‘woke’ given her knowledge of other cultures and their stories, but there’s an air of snobbery to her, an “I’m better than you” persona that is difficult to like. As the main character and narrator of the story, she’s not someone that folks can either relate to or identify with because she feels very out of touch, and out of place.
Elba as a Djinn, however, is a joy to watch. His Djinn isn’t comical or attempts to be entertaining like Will Smith or Robin Williams. Elba’s djinn is grounded, vulnerable, honest and romantic. It’s refreshing to see the actor play a soft character as compared to his recent hypermasculine roles.
Unfortunately, despite Swinton and Elba’s performance in this grown-up fairytale, Three Thousand Years of Longing lacks a proper storyline. A huge portion of the film is Swinton and Elba sitting in a hotel room, while all the exotic drama is given to us in flashbacks and fragments of wonder. The movie is incredibly static and lacks the three things required to make any story work: a build-up, a climax and a satisfying ending. It’s quite an irony that Three Thousand Years of Learning is a movie about stories, but doesn’t have a narrative for itself. To some viewers, the lack of narrative and static feeling may pose no problem, but director George Miller is highly glorified for his madness in Mad Max Fury, but somehow Three Thousand Years of Longing pales in comparison.
The movie also feels very old-fashioned. When a book, or any old media for that matter, gets adapted for the 21st century, directors often try to modernise it in some shape, way or form to suit modern audiences. Miller did not attempt to do so and delivered a plain adaptation that was neither transformative or imaginative. In fact, Miller doubled down on the issues present in the original tale.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is also extremely Orientalist. It heavily places Middle-eastern people under the ‘Others’ category, portrays them as brute and savage, but also exoticises the people and their culture at the same time. The movie reduces Middle-eastern people to campy costuming, sexual objects and lessons for the White British woman who, at every second possible, reminds viewers of her intellect.
That said, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye may have received a much more engaging adaptation from a younger or a tuned director who would engage and perhaps even challenge the topics of orientalism, sex, race and gender present in the story.
In all, Three Thousand Years of Longing has fantastic imagery that serves fantasy, horror and all things magical but lacks story and ambition. It feels like a short passion project for Miller and leaves audiences longing for more.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Three Thousand Years Of Longing leaves viewers longing for more in this grown-up fairytale on Djinns, Kings and magic.
Story - 5/10
Direction - 6/10
Characterisation - 6/10
Geek Satisfaction - 6/10