Sandwiched between two Mad Max films (Fury Road and the upcoming Furiosa), Australian auteur George Miller brings us Three Thousand Years of Longing, a curiosity, a romantic drama adapted from A.S. Byatt’s short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” (Miller co-wrote the script with Augusta Gore). Longing is a story about stories, from the mind of one of cinema’s most visceral filmmakers, yet it is not a film defined by the kind of pulse-pounding action for which Miller is best known. Longing is relaxed, romantic, almost languid. It’s tempting to compare Longing to Miller’s fellow Aussie auteur Baz Luhrmann and his lurid, lavish Elvis, but Longing is more constrained, more carefully structured. It reminds me more of the Wachowskis’ similarly frustrating Cloud Atlas, a magnum opus that wanders and never quite arrives at a point.
Tilda Swinton stars as Alithea, a “narratologist” who studies stories, who seeks to understand the role of stories in a world explained by science, which is wonderful but has also sucked the magic and mystery from the world. While at a conference in Istanbul, Alithea finds a pretty glass lamp in the bazaar, and chooses it as her memento of her trip. It has some scorch marks on it, though, and an attempt to clean the lamp results in freeing the djinn trapped inside. Idris Elba stars as the djinn, called simply “Djinn”, who self-describes as an “idiot” and a “fool” who keeps getting trapped in bottles by women who don’t love him as much as he loves them. He’s a himbo djinn, desperate for Alithea to make her three wishes so he can be freed of the curse that keeps him tethered to a bottle.
The problem is that Alithea has read all the stories and myths about djinn and wishes and is no hurry to bring that kind of cautionary tale down upon herself. What results is a sort of reverse One Thousand and One Nights, wherein the djinn tells stories to Alithea to impress upon her the importance of wishing (there is a direct reference to Scheherazade early in the film). The stories fascinate Alithea, a collector of tales like the djinn, and the film unfolds as a series of vignettes depicting the djinn’s relationships with the women who mark his time outside the bottle.
Longing is gorgeous to look at, with production design by Roger Ford, art direction by Nicholas Dare and Sophie Nash, and cinematography by the legendary John Seale (who declared his retirement following this film). Miller, who has an eye for space and scale, makes believable a mythical being who is too big for any room yet can make himself almost as small as he needs to be to blend in. And the earliest story the djinn tells, of his time at Queen Sheba’s court when King Solomon arrives to woo her, is full of wonderful sights and fantastical touches. But as time goes on, magic dies in the world, until the djinn is left in the modern day, where technology makes his existence almost unbearable.
I wish Longing gave a little more time to this concept. It doesn’t need to be a television show, but even just a few more minutes to let the ideas and characters breathe wouldn’t be amiss. The various romances depicted are mostly sexless and, worse, dispassionate. The djinn tells us of passion, but we don’t see it except in that earliest Sheba story. Everything just moves a little bit too fast, and the film, like the djinn himself, is not quite the right size for the space it’s trying to occupy. Yes, Alithea is a logical and deliberately unromantic woman, but that is all the more reason to highlight the contrast once she is seized by love. But the whole film operates on one frequency, despite ranging across thousands of years and a world of varying degrees of magic. It flattens the story, rendering the strange and wonderful past as mundane as the modern world.
But it’s not a bad film. It’s just at times frustrating, as it teases at a grandiosity that never quite arrives. Swinton and Elba are fun to watch in what is mostly a two-hander between them, but the film never feels as odd or grand as it should, given the context. “Aladdin for adults” is one way of describing it but it also feels like someone recalling only fragments of another, more interesting film. It is in turns frustrating and alluring, aesthetically rich and narratively shallow. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a passion project for George Miller that is strangely passionless.
Attached - Idris Elba promoting Beast in London.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is playing exclusively in theaters from August 26, 2022.