Depending on your expectations, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” will either leave you satisfied or pining.

No matter what, all things end. What remains in their wake are the stories of their existence. With those tales, anything can live forever. Before the written word, the oral tradition kept histories alive and, now, with media channels that transmit sound and picture from one part of the globe to another, the stories that survive can thrive. It makes a certain amount of sense that audiences come to the theater (or their couch) to be wowed for 90 minutes or more, to be whisked away by enchantments, dramas, or comedies, so as to carry something with them long after the experience is done. But stories are more than entertainments or historical logs, they’re often lessons masked by performance, costuming, and flourish. Such is the case with writer/director George Miller’s (Mad Max: Fury Road/Babe) adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s short story The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye, starring Idris Elba (The Losers) as the djinn and Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the narratologist to whom he pontificates one lesson after another. The marketing implies that Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing is a fantastique action adventure filled with tales of madness and grandeur, which is the furthest from the truth. Though moments of surrealism and fantasy intersect, the bulk of Three Thousand is far more grounded and patient, likely to leave some audiences feeling like they’ve been baited for one type of tale and are receiving another.

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Tilda Swinton stars as Alithea Binnie in director George Miller’s film THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Elise Lockwood © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Elise Lockwood.

While traveling internationally for a conference, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Swinton) stops in to a shop in Istanbul and purchases a glass bottle as a keepsake. While cleaning it up in her hotel room, the polishing she gives it release from within a djinn (Elba) who informs her that she can make three wishes within certain rules. Aware of the various stories throughout human history in which wish-making is but the start of a larger moral or ethical lesson, she’s hesitant to even consider a single wish. This frustrates the djinn, prompting him to tell her stories of his experience, from free djinn to this moment, in hopes that they will guide her toward her heart’s desire and, in turn, free him from his bottle prison.

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L-R: Idris Elba stars as The Djinn and Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie in director George Miller’s film THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo Credit: Elise Lockwood.

Let’s address the first, and likely, biggest thing about Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing: it’s not the epic, expansive tale filled with debauchery and opulence that the trailers imply. The bulk of the film is split into three tales that djinn tells Alithea, each one jumping in time and location and each involving sex, desire, love, riches, magic, and a form of violence, yet none of it is gratuitous, debaucherous, or imposing. Rather, each story is told with a measure of care so that the audience is shown only what they need to see when important to the story (ex. The naked form of many women during the second story when highlighting a male character’s circumstance, but never putting into plain view a female character being sexed from behind by her much older husband). Considering the almost Baz Luhrmann-esque stylings of the trailer, this may put some audiences off from what is, as devised by Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore, a small story about love, longing and duty.

For those who have read Byatt’s The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye, this review will not draw any type of comparison between source material and adaptation. Only portions of a few stories from the 1994 collection of stories are available to read online and, even then, one cannot discuss the quality of a film based on its direct adaptation, but on how well the film tells its own story. In this regard, it can be stated that Three Thousand is seeks to explore, through the use of science and metaphysics, what connects us as humans, and the way it accomplishes that doesn’t always land fully. For instance, during the conference presentation we see Alithea speak, she makes an interesting declaration that science removes the necessity for stories because science holds all truths. Given that she’s considered an expert in her field, someone who studies the way narrative structures utilized by a given society shape the perception of culture and artifacts from within that culture, this statement prompts a staunch defense from an audience member that sends her reeling. The fact that someone doesn’t abide by her premise isn’t the strange part, it’s the person who does it (not identified specifically, but the audience is given enough to understand their dissatisfaction with Alithea’s argument) is out of place within the context of the scene. That person is, perhaps, connected to someone Alithea meets when she first deplanes at the airport: a stranger to her who tries to redirect her cart physically while imploring her to go to Istanbul. It’s the kind of setup that hints at a larger magical world, but isn’t given much explanation regarding the larger rules of the story. For certain, it can be argued that Alithea wouldn’t make it to Istanbul without that particular interaction, but, then, there’s no other internal or external sense that she would go to the specific shop or is drawn to the specific bottle. As surely as Alithea herself is the narrator of this film, the script wants the audience to be aware of the reality of magical forces or beings, but also of the chaos of free will. Things happen to djinn through this story that are a mix of intention and happenstance, much in the same way that Alithea comes to find his bottle. It’s what one does within the time in between life’s larger stories that matters, a lesson djinn tries to impart as quickly as possible, hoping to earn his freedom from the bottle as a result.

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F-B: Idris Elba stars as The Djinn and and Burcu Gölgedar as Zefir in director George Miller’s film THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo Credit: Elise Lockwood.

That Alithea is an expert on narrative structure and that djinn seeks to impart wisdom to her in order to help them both is the film’s main conflict. How can one who is aware of the cultural reputation of djinn trust one, even when they so profusely proclaim that they aren’t the trickster type? (Exactly what a trickster would say, right?) Thanks to Elba, the audience and Alithea, are able to be convinced of djinn’s sincerity, giving permission to open up to the wisdom djinn offers and sort through it ourselves. Even as Swinton makes Alithea seem perhaps too stiff and distant (a trait the script makes clear is a character trait), she infuses Alithea with an aura of longing, a desire to not just know the inner workings of the world (for everything in the world is a by-product of the stories we’re told and continue to tell), but to better know herself. Though there are many characters of great significance throughout Three Thousand, Alithea and djinn are at the core of it, something which might be easy to forget with all the narration djinn engages in. If it were any other actor in any other story, it would feel like merely heavy narration to escape showing the audience what is what. Instead, Elba’s delivery is filled with such melancholy, that the audience is prone to falling into the djinn’s enchantment, perhaps missing the wisdom he seeks to impart in the process.

It’s worth noting that while I found Three Thousand compelling, it was difficult to give myself fully to the film due to a technical issue at the press screening. Prior to the screening, the theater was aware of a leak and had sent for a plumber to address the issue. What they didn’t know, however, is that the pipe nearest this theater would make a very loud depressurization-like sound every few minutes. At first, given the otherworldly and often multisensory experience of sound and visuals, it wouldn’t have been too far a stretch for the noise to have been part of the sound design, except it wasn’t, and the repetition often distracted from dialogue and most severely removed me from the movie. Credit where due, the representative for the film did try to address the issue during the film and that’s how we discovered that none of the employees were aware of the noise, even by the start of our 6p screening.

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Idris Elba stars as The Djinn in director George Miller’s film THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo Credit: Elise Lockwood.

There’s a wildness, an unpredictability to Three Thousand Years of Longing implied by the art and concept of the film. A suggestion that the tale the audience will engage in is full of magic and mysticism, the kind that tantalizes and lures in the unsuspecting. The make-up and special effects that make Elba’s djinn appear as electromagnetic fire, pulsing with energy even when tethered to a smaller form, also make the period portions feel equally vibrant and alive. Smartly, it’s Alithea’s design which feels like a barrier one must break through, built of singular colors or styles, smart from toe to brow. But the film is not as untamed as the trailer implies, rather it’s a cautionary tale from start to finish, one which anyone would be wise to pay to attention to. I quite like how it shifts from the expected, never quite leaning too hard into the battle of fate vs. chance, never quite answering any of the questions it raises; rather, Three Thousand Years of Longing is best served considered exactly for what it is: one tale among many.

In theaters August 31st, 2022.

For more information, head to United Artist Releasing’s official Three Thousand Years of Longing webpage.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.



Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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