If you’ve had the chance to see the trailer for the new film “Three Thousand Years of Longing” you’ll probably go into it expecting a trippy, gonzo bonanza of big effects and crazy imagery that could only come “from the mad genius of George Miller”. After all, he’s the visual virtuoso whose last movie was none other than the 2015 action masterpiece “Mad Max: Fury Road”. So George Miller comes packaged with some expectation of eye-popping bombast.
Surprisingly, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is tamer than you might think. I mean there’s still plenty of stylistic flourishes and excesses. But not as much as the trailer might have you believing. Even more surprising, with the exception of a scene or two, it’s when the movie ventures off into the fantastical that some of its weaknesses really show. I mean who would’ve guessed that the best parts of a George Miller movie would be Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in white terrycloth bathrobes sitting in a hotel room talking?
“Three Thousand” is full of big ideas that never quite gel and ambition that it never quite fulfills. Based on the short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A. S. Byatt, the script (penned by Miller and Augusta Gore) gets off on the right foot. We get a really nice setup, and once Elba is introduced, he and Swinton immediately grab our interest. The movie is at its best when sticking to its intimate two-hander framework. But then we get these sequences from the past, each coated in Elba’s aching but rather drab narration. While interesting at first, these detours quickly start to wear thin.
Swinton is very good as Dr. Alithea Binnie, a narratologist who we meet as she’s arriving in Istanbul for a literary conference. Alithea was once happily married. But a heartbreaking miscarriage followed by an unfaithful husband led to the end of her marriage. Since then, she has walled off a part of herself, traveling abroad and focusing on her work. “I’m a solitary creature by nature,” she says proudly describing her new approach to life which sees her happy and content on her own. Or is she?
While walking through Istanbul’s grand bizarre, Alithea stops in a small shop and purchases a memento – a small blue and white stained glass bottle. She takes her knickknack back to her hotel room to give it a good cleaning. While doing so, the bottle pops open and out filters a pointy-eared djinn (Elba) the size of a cement truck. Now that would be quite a jolt for anyone, even more so for someone like Alithea who doesn’t believe in fate and spends many of her lectures teaching that gods have outlived their purposes. So what to make of the djinn in her hotel suite?
After the djinn sizes down to more human proportions the two begin their rather fascinating introductions. He explains to her that he has the ability to grant her heart’s desire. All she has to do is wish it. Alithea is both cynical and dispassionate to the point that she’s not interested in the djinn’s offer. It sets up an interesting dynamic between the two. The djinn needs Alithea to make a wish because it would finally free him from his centuries of servitude. She has no interest in wishes, but she is an admirer of stories. And that’s something the djinn has plenty of.
So the djinn begins telling Alithea the stories of his previous masters. As he does, Miller makes several pseudo historical trips back in time, including to the days of King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) and the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) as well as the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (Lachy Hulme). Considering this is a Miller film, you’d think these peculiar mixes of history and fantasy would be the movie’s high points. It’s quite the opposite.
When Miller leaves the hotel room for centuries past, the movie hits a wall and bogs down. And frankly, it’s because the djinn’s stories simply aren’t that interesting. There’s not enough weirdness. There’s not enough excitement. There’s practically no suspense whatsoever. The drama is very low-key. And some of Miller’s choices range from bland to lurid and tasteless. There are a few layers of excess that are more off-putting than audacious. Even the visuals are lacking, often highlighted by cheap-looking digital backdrops or glaringly artificial sets.
The movie always gets better whenever it shifts back to Alithea and the djinn in the hotel room. Their conversations are emotionally rich and revealing. Both characters are portraits of longing. His is more open and pronounced. Hers has been suppressed. Both the dialogue in these scenes and the chemistry between Swinton and Elba make them sparkle. Sadly, they can’t make up for the unremarkable flashbacks and the assortment of issues that come with them. And so we end up with a movie exploring why we tell stories that is ultimately undone by a character telling stories? Ironic.