On a trip to Istanbul for a conference, Alithea Binnie, a scholar of narrative and myth, finds herself swept up into a mythic story of her own. Alithea, played by Tilda Swinton, buys a bottle from an old shop, a cultural token for her travels, only to find that it is apparently home to a genie. One moment, she’s rinsing the bottle off in her hotel sink. The next, a giant Idris Elba, speaking another language and flowing with colorful undercurrents of fire and electricity beneath his skin, has set up shop in the bedroom.
It’s shocking, but this is not a story about shock. George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, which is based on A.S. Byatt’s 1994 short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” is instead a story about stories themselves: about the power of narrative, the feats of imagination that sustain and connect us. Whether the movie itself has much power or imagination is a separate question. At times, Three Thousand Years becomes that awkward thing: a movie about itself, about the tall tales that make movies worth watching and stories worth telling, that in fact fails to feel worth it. At other times, its attempts to spellbind us with its dreamy, delirious love of stories hits just right, with the stories nested within fully submerging us in their world, making us as captive to this genie’s ingenious histories as Alithea, his front-row audience, must be. The movie is a mixed bag, almost by design. It doesn’t always work. But gosh, does it try.
Three Thousand Years is largely an omnibus of the tales that Djinn, as the genie is called, tells about himself, at Alithea’s insistence — she being a student of such tales, after all. The usual trappings of a genie story are here: the three wishes, the genie’s desperation for his own freedom, the godlike magic acts that make his own eternal captivity, in a palm-sized bottle no less, so ironic. A key difference is that women have an intriguing degree of power, both in the stories Djinn tells and in the overarching narrative spun by Miller’s movie. Djinn has only found himself in this situation, still enslaved after all these years, because of his weakness for women. And now here he is in Istanbul, pleading his case to Tilda Swinton. Alithea’s got questions; Djinn has stories. Djinn wants freedom; it’s up to Alithea, apparently, to help him get it.
When it’s working, Three Thousand Years is an old curiosity shop of a movie, a cache of curios and strange conceits, many of which, when the movie isn’t working, are submerged into the bland uniformity of Miller’s stylistic approach to large stretches of this film. Each chapter in the movie, each new leg in the grand story of Djinn’s life, takes us somewhere new. We’re taken back to the time of the Queen of Sheba — an ex-lover of his, apparently — and given a tour of the dark passages and dreary violence overseen by the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent. We meet other conjurers, see sweeping adventures of love and deceit, listen in on stories within stories. More than once, Djinn falls in love, or falls prey to the love of the people who discover him.
This is a movie interested in gathering the common threads of humanity like some bouquet of justifications for peace and understanding — a movie about the universal ingredients in stories of every culture. So for Djinn to fall prey to what connects us all is saying something. We create myths to explain the inexplicable to ourselves. Love — illogical, overwhelming — emerges, not as a myth, but as something whose power we understand far less than we thought we did.
Miller may be best known for his Mad Max movies, but his career has traversed genre, and in some ways, Three Thousand Years feels like a consummation of certain strands in his career. Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) was awe-struck by the miracle of science (not to be confused with professional scientists themselves); The Witches of Eastwick (1987), by the powers of sex and witchcraft and, most convincingly, movie stars, offering up the likes of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Jack Nicholson as living proof of the kind of charisma that can neither be taught, nor bought.
Three Thousand Years is a movie star affair, too, and a tale about miracles of every variety, from science to love to the human mind. Swinton couldn’t make more sense as a narratologist-heroine of a movie beset with magic and miracles. Elba, too, makes a case for himself as the kind of a genie you’d want to randomly manifest in your hotel bedroom. All the ingredients are here. But from the outset, Miller, in one of his more interesting moves, seems to want to deny us the pleasure of fulfilling our expectations. Swinton’s quirkiness is tamped down, Elba’s megawatt star-power made, perhaps ironically for the character, more grounded in human reality.
This is ultimately a film about a long conversation between two people: an adult approach to fairy tales, it feels appropriate to say. There’s desire at play, here, but it isn’t reducible to sex, or even love, and Miller gently avoids the too-obvious trope of making Alithea into some undersexed brainiac spinster whose hunger for Djinn’s tales really amounts to a vicarious hunger for titillation. Three Thousand Years plays with that idea, but resists it. Really, this movie is less notable for what it does than for what it resists. Djinn — a literal magical being, an actual giant — arrives with the silence of a cat burglar, for example. There’s no fanfare, no crash-banging thuds and whirring smoke. No, he just sort of — appears. Hunched over, with his back to us and Alithea. Awkwardly squeezed into a human-size room, like Alice before she shrinks on her way to Wonderland.
The “real world” of Three Thousand Years feels tantalizingly small. The grandiose pleasures one might expect are often noticeably, pleasurably reoriented. Something about the gap between what we’d expect of Miller’s depiction and what he actually gives us feels electric with expectation: it’s underwhelming, in a way, but without the disappointed connotation. If anything, this approach adds the heat that makes Djinn’s stories and the worlds therein feel that much larger — even when Miller’s approach to filming these tales doesn’t always have spark.
The stories Djinn tells, played out in muted flashbacks, are often too swift for anything to really catch on: there’s almost too much for each story to cover. The grand proportions of each story are there, but the most scintillating details are sometimes abandoned to the constant onrush of more details, more stories. Some things stand out nevertheless. The shimmering beauty of Sheba’s skin, as Djinn describes it, and the swift cruelties of her betrayal are worthy of the enduring pain Djinn seems to feel toward her. And the frustrations of a woman named Zefir — the 19th-century heroine of Djinn’s best story — whose genius is bound to be suppressed by the strictures of marriage until a chance encounter with Djinn helps her find her power.
Something’s wrong, in a movie like this, when the prospect of yet another chapter, yet another drawling blip on the timeline of a multiple-thousands year long life like Djinn’s, doesn’t exactly feel exciting. Maybe it’s telling that the best moment in Three Thousand Years doesn’t come in one of Djinn’s stories, but after he’s done telling them, when we’ve returned to the broader frame. The moment comes as Alithea is headed back home, to London, with a genie in her carry-on that she cannot be sure will survive a bag inspection. The scene is genuinely suspenseful. What will metal detectors and other gizmos do to an ancient, god-like being born of electricity and myth? And what of the suspicious looks from airport security, the palpable hunch, visible on their faces, that Alithea has something foreign, or dangerous, or both in tow?
In the end, Three Thousand Years of Longing reveals itself to be about a set of problems, of political sympathies, that are downplayed for much of the movie but intriguingly apt once they’re made explicit. Yet what the movie has to say about modern attitudes toward the “other,” about the gaps that storytelling cannot bridge, rings out with less power than the practical problems its set up for this wise genie and his new friend. If the film is moving, it’s because of the impulses that spur Alithea to bring Djinn home and the double-edged facts of Djinn’s nature that prevent him from thriving there. The difficulty with Three Thousand Years is the film’s too-long road to getting there. Its real worth rests in how much it has to say once it finally does.