Australian director George Miller is just as apt to make a crowd-pleasing film like Happy Feet as he is to fire up a new Mad Max installment. But coming after the intense, dystopian Fury Road, his Tilda Swinton-Idris Elba vehicle Three Thousand Years of Longing still comes as a surprise.
Banish any notions of blue genies with Will Smith’s face for a minute and consider the idea of a Djinn: a mystical creature who can grant three wishes and seems to have a knack for being imprisoned in tiny bottles. Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a happily solitary professor of narratology who comes across an old blue bottle in an Istanbul knickknack shop; takes it to her hotel room, polishes it clean and unleashes an 18-foot Elba. If this were Disney, we’d be treated to a musical number.
Instead, based on A.S. Byatt’s story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” we’re treated to a deconstruction of myth and storytelling, and a rumination on the nature of love, its endurance and its unexpectedness, in a way that doesn’t often make it to the screen these days.
Played mostly in white bathrobes in a hotel room, the stories unfurled in Three Thousand Years… take us back through the Djinn’s (frequent) imprisonment over several millennia. Whether playing for the affections of the Queen of Sheba and being squeezed down into a perfume bottle by her jealous lover Solomon, or being buried beneath a stone in a Constantinople fortress, or being discovered by a knowledge-hungry wife trapped in a marriage with a much-older merchant husband in the 1850s, Djinn’s journey is interwoven with a (far-less sweeping) tale revealed by Alithea: of a bookish girl who never fit in, who had an imaginary friend growing up named Enzo that helped her get through her isolation and asthma; of a short, not-so-happy marriage.
This leads Alithea to an academic life that suits her: standing before crowds of other academics, sharing her views on the meaning of myths in culture. When she starts seeing strange, demonic figures wandering around Istanbul, she chalks it up to overwork. When Elba shows up in her hotel room in enlarged form, she’s inclined to be skeptical: she knows how the “three wishes” trope plays out in fiction and myth; it never works the way people want. (“There’s no story about wishing that isn’t a cautionary tale.”) For his part, Djinn is vexed at Alithea’s unwillingness to dream big. (“Is there any life in you, Alithea Binnie? Are you even alive?”)
The fantastical elements of Miller’s tale are mostly there as colorful decoration, hiding a somewhat deeper meditation on storytelling.
Somehow, the story behind the filming of Three Thousand Years of Longing told by Idris Elba in the press kit fits with the movie’s theme. He and co-star Swinton were quarantined next door to each other before filming began in Australia, early in the COVID pandemic. They could only see each other from their adjoining hotel balconies: “Every now and again we would do a scene reading across the balcony, with a little red wine just to help,” Elba recalls. “It was great to see Tilda, to have a face to face in real time as we got closer to the shoot.”
The fact that it began with this constrained connection between the leads is kind of on-point.
As with all of Miller’s films, he goes all-in with world-building: there are plenty of whipping cameras, clashing bodies, whether on the battlefield or under the sheets (and nudity I’m assuming the MTRCB cut to screen it in Manila), lots of sun-drenched vistas, smoky alleyways and dark castles. The catch-and-release structure of the tale is what makes it mostly fun: Djinn persistently wheedling Alithea to make three wishes from “her heart’s desire” to set him free. In this, he’s like Scheherazade, spinning endless tales to stay off execution. Being that the story comes from A.S. Byatt in the ‘90s, you can probably guess where the trail eventually leads.
We learn that Djinn and his kind use stories to connect with one another. The Djinn are electromagnetic forms (“subtle fire”), so perhaps ill-suited to the modern world of digital technology, while Alithea is carbon-based (“dust”), a detective who traces why we tell stories, but steadfastly refuses to examine her own. The fantastical elements of Miller’s tale (which liberally expands on the short story) are mostly there as colorful decoration, hiding a somewhat deeper meditation on storytelling. What narratives drive us in life? What is the nature of desire? As Byatt’s professor character ruminates on the page, “It is as though our dreams were watching us and directing our lives with external vigor whilst we simply enact their pleasures passively, in a swoon.” Here, Alithea narrates that “Love is not something we come to like reason. It’s more like vapor — a dream, perhaps, to lure us into the enchantment of our own stories. Is it a truth? Or simply a madness?”
The question is, in an age where people are less inclined to leave their couches and laptops, will Manila audiences be drawn into cinemas by the spectacle of Elba and Swinton unwinding stories in their bathrobes? Maybe. One may wish so.
* * *
Three Thousand Years of Longing is now showing in cinemas, distributed by Go Asia Entertainment.