“There is no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale!”
In George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) — a successful British scholar and author who suffers from chronic loneliness and bizarre encounters with the spiritual, as well as denial of those two conditions — buys an antique bottle during a trip to Istanbul, unaware that it is the most recent prison of a wish-granting genie (Idris Elba). The Djinn, as he prefers to be called, specializes in granting people their heart’s desires, which (much like his actor, People magazine’s 2018 “Sexiest Man Alive”) he seems to be quite good at.
Despite being presented with such possibility and few limitations, Alithea cannot and will not come up with a wish, as she’s convinced that she has everything that she could ever want and harbors little trust for the Djinn or the dangerous game of granted desires. This proves to be a conundrum, as the Djinn must grant her three wishes from the heart before he can return to his own realm. Before they reach an understanding, he recounts to her three tales detailing the millennia-long journey of his imprisonment, love and longing that led to the Istanbul hotel room they find themselves sharing.
The film’s singular trailer prior to its release paints a portrait of a delirious adventure and credits Miller as a “mad genius” (passing over words like “visionary” or even “director”), yet this is something of a misrepresentation. The lunatic behind “Mad Max: Fury Road” is more subdued here, and his film is less of a madcap fever dream as it is a wacky, deeply emotional fairytale that microdoses insanity instead of swimming in it. It’s still an entirely odd movie — someone’s head turns into a spider and leg hair is a plot point more than once — but it’s more focused on the whimsy and wonder of storytelling, and the characters that inhabit the world it creates.
Alithea is an unusually understated role for Swinton, who nevertheless occupies the character well, while the Djinn’s charisma and ancient sorrow are a more natural fit for Elba. These characters make for an interesting pair of leads. Alithea is a woman so out of tune with herself that she can’t think of one thing she needs in the face of getting whatever she wants, and the Djinn is a being who grants wishes rather than ever making them, yet they’ve both spent their lives looking for the same thing. Their histories may point to this wish being the hardest of all to grant.
In an age where far too many films, especially the ones with bigger budgets, stretch too little content over runtimes well over two hours, or bloat a film to that same length with content that should have been cut, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” makes a rarer mistake in finishing up too quickly. While some have complained that the film spends too much time indulging in flashbacks, the actual problem lies in how little time it spends outside of them.
The impact of the film’s ending is built on the relationship between the two lead characters, but due to a third act that suddenly rushes instead of continuing in deliberate and relaxed pacing, there isn’t enough time spent exploring that dynamic. This is not to say that the film face-plants instead of landing on its feet, for the ideas that it’s been working on and the chemistry built between Alithea and the Djinn are all still there, and every new element introduced is an interesting one. It’s not a question of missing puzzle pieces or even how they’re put together — they’re just assembled on an uncomfortably small table.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is the type of film that we see less and less of these days, and it deserves to be seen and supported. Movies that tell weird new stories in weird new ways push the envelope, even when they don’t entirely work. This one is an entertaining, thoughtful ride about storytelling and the deepest desires of our hearts.