‘Three Thousand Years of Longing,’ George Miller’s strangely rambling ode to the power of storytelling
Stories about storytelling can feel like fussy nesting dolls, as one anecdote skips into another with a vague and wearying sense of purposeful connectivity. But Three Thousand Years of Longing happily revels in all the chaotic detours and florid discourse—what else would you expect when the director of The Road Warrior centers his latest movie around a mousy academic?
Mischievous filmmaker George Miller has always had a uniquely sprawling range to his baroque way of spinning yarns. He’s the only director protean enough to conjure the feral futurescapes of The Mad Max franchise and reimagine John Updike’s wry lit-hit The Witches of Eastwick as a tarted-up sexcapade. He transformed the sick-kid docudrama Lorenzo’s Oil into a heart-thumping medical mystery and unexpectedly sequelized a successful family film to create the wildly dark kid’s movie Babe: Pig in the City. And then he made jazz hands with the wildly toe-tapping animated musical films Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two. His is a singular career punctuated with quirky personal choices and a keen sense of uncanny adventure.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: George Miller
Written by: George Miller
Starring: Idris Elba, Tilda Swinton, Aamito Lagum, Nicolas Mouawad, Burcu Gölgedar, Matteo Bocelli, Kaan Guldur, Jack Braddy
Running time: 108 min
Not surprising, then, that a man who takes big swings and makes eccentric gestures would call his love story Three Thousand Years of Longing—and then stick his pair of chatty protagonists in a posh hotel suite. Working from A.S. Byatt’s richly imaginative purple-prosed novella “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” Miller celebrates the fecundity of fanciful fables, the exoticism of ancient civilizations, and the fickleness of the human heart. It’s a punch-drunk romance pairing an oversized genie and a Scottish bookworm in matching terrycloth robes, and it’s a gorgeous mess. But its audacious visual ferocity makes all the narrative wobbles a little more forgivable.
The two-hander follows frumpy Scottish narratologist and self-described “solitary creature” Alithea Binnie (a bewigged Tilda Swinton) as she visits Istanbul to give an academic lecture. Intrigued by an ancient blue-striped glass vial she finds at the Grand Bazaar, Alithea uncorks it in her room at the Pera Palace Hotel and decants an enormous and very suave Djinn (Idris Elba). “What is your heart’s desire?” the pointy-eared genie coos in an exotic baritone, offering three wishes for his freedom. No so fast, she replies, too familiar with Monkey’s-Paw cautionary folklore to fall for that trap. Wishes beget regrets, insists Alithea, so she refuses, which makes the Djinn fall into a melancholy sulk. She’s not wrong, he admits, and then shares with her some epic moments of rueful yearning from his own life.
Like that time he fell for the intoxicating Ethiopian Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) before Israelite King Soloman (Nicolas Mouawad) played his duduk and won her love. Or when, in the Court of Suleiman the Magnificent during the Ottoman Empire, the Djinn helped out a concubine named Gultan (Ece Yüksel) and her ill-fated anchor-baby exploits to win Prince Mustafa (Matteo Bocelli). Or that time he sated the appetites of knowledge-hungry 19th-century genius Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), a woman locked up in a mansion by her wealthy and jealous merchant husband. Not quite One Thousand and One Nights, but definitely a solid trio of tales.
Point is, the Djinn has been around for three thousand years and he’s full of longing. And somehow he meets his match with a brogue-heavy middle-aged woman too uptight to admit that what her heart really desires is love. And what Miller wants to point out is that humans are forever destined to create myths and legends about their own weaknesses, insecurities, jealousies, and excesses and find them insatiably enthralling. Few will be in thrall to Miller’s film, or be sated by its visions. But they won’t find a more sincere expression of gratitude for the world-building gift of gab.