Brief descriptors of directors (usually cooked up by the marketing department) tend to elicit a few different reactions. The use of “Visionary,” in particular, causes a lot of eyes to roll. In the case of George Miller, “Mad Genius” seems more than appropriate. Three Thousand Years of Longing is yet another ambitious push from the director who’s delivered iconic vehicular mayhem in the various Mad Max films. However, this story of a scholar and a djinn may have more in common with the surreality of Miller’s sequel to Babe. While this imaginative feature is no madcap, animal-based adventure, the blend of the fantastical with a sense of innocence, along with a variety of visual choices, puts the familiar feeling of the mad genius director on display, even when at his most meditative.
Beginning in modern-day Istanbul, Tilda Swinton stars as Dr. Alithea Bonnie, an acclaimed narratologist, quickly reveals that the audience is about to see a fairy tale. This is delivered in a manner that could be condescending were it not for Swinton’s ability to brush that aside with a sense of intrigue as far as what that could mean. It’s all the more fitting for Alithea’s worldview as well, as she has traveled across the globe to discuss how little regard people have for meaningful stories and the sense of wonder when the world’s myths and mysteries now equate to what can be found in comic books.
One wonders what sort of challenge Miller has set for himself and the audience after delivering an Oscar-winning blockbuster masterpiece structured to tell its story through non-stop action. Alithea may not be barreling down Fury Road, but she does come across a bottle containing something just as wild. Upon opening the seemingly harmless trinkets, a large puff of CG smoke reveals a massive creature with an upper torso shaped like Idris Elba sporting pointy ears and a multicolored goatee. He is a Djinn, and while his ability to grant three wishes is designed to intrigue any human with desires, Alithea has other concerns on her mind.
While at the risk of offsetting the film’s pace, Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore made the conscious and economical choice of building a film primarily around two people conversing in a hotel room. They have found different approaches to the extended periods of solitude they have experienced, leaving both in a curious position as to what to do about how the other has received them.
Now, this isn’t to say the film does not attempt to expand upon the visual possibilities inherent to a movie featuring a Djinn. With Alithea not eager to make a wish at the risk of having it backfire, the Djinn takes the opportunity to share stories he has so badly wanted to tell, given the long periods he has spent in captivity. This allows Three Thousand Years of Longing to head back in time and detail events during the times of notable ancient middle eastern figures, including the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon, and Suleiman the Magnificent.
As emphasized by the ads, these expressionistic segments of the film open up the world being presented, expanding on the ideas while providing trailer-worthy depictions of spectacle from a particular era. It’s no surprise this film is being compared to Tarsem Singh’s brilliant 2006 fantasy drama, The Fall. While that film had the benefit of being filmed in a couple dozen countries, 2022 is a different sort of time for moviemaking, which means getting creative in building ancient worlds on a budget. The results allow for inspired sets, costume designs, and the occasional stylish diversion, such as a nasty-looking spider creature that explodes into a ton of smaller spiders.
With that in mind, it’s not all fun and spiders, as Three Thousand Years of Longing is still largely set on finding ways to evaluate life, love, and loneliness. Based on his memories, the tales told by the Djinn are not without purpose. As inventive as the visuals may be, Miller is plenty equipped to wring just as much cinema out of the small suite Alithea and the Djinn occupy.
Whether watching flames emerge from a guitar in a dystopian future or the tragic circumstances concerning a brain disorder in Lorenzo’s Oil, Miller knows how to go big yet keep his films affecting. The promise of fantastical tales and the mighty power of a Djinn may provide intrigue, but it does come down to watching this balance in personalities between Swinton and Elba that holds it all together.
Both are in fine form here. Swinton takes a character who could have been portrayed as pricklier with a dry sense of humor and an otherworldliness befitting her ability to reason with an immortal being. Elba shows off a tenderness that goes beyond the general idea people have when considering the various interpretations of genies in movies. Sure, the ultimate goal may still be “let me be free,” but this story understands there is a complexity to how one can embrace their desires. Because this film is far more about who these individuals are than telling a familiar tale, Miller gets terrific work from both performers to fully realize the journeys he has placed them on.
This also means Three Thousand Years of Longing seemingly works as hard as needed to not play to conventions. It’s certainly accessible but marches to its own beat. As mentioned, the pacing is deliberate but also thrown off at times based on Miller’s need to spice things up with slapstick moments. A major pivot in the film’s final section is designed to introduce other forms of social commentary. I’m not sure how effective this ultimately feels, especially given the bittersweet nature of the primary story unfolding. Nevertheless, the bond formed, and the chemistry between Swinton and Elba at that point allow this oddball feature to work far more than it doesn’t during this stretch.
Three Thousand Years of Longing works to highlight the power storytelling has had throughout history by way of being a film less concerned with plot than it is the nature of those in touch with the world. Given how this film arrives at a time when many have had to deal with their own forms of solitude (although Miller’s been wanting to make this movie since the 90s), perhaps this insular tale concerning the effect love has had on two individuals could inspire more to embrace adult-focused cinema. That said, it’s not as though this feature lacks ways to depict ancient accounts. For those wishing for something original, illuminating, and lovely, Miller made some wise choices at his own command.