A lovelorn soul, a genie — or in this case Djinn — trapped in a bottle, three wishes. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least far back as the early 16th century when Antoine Galland began regaling eager listeners with the stories of Aladdin and his Magic Lamp. Certainly the cautionary tales of wish fulfillment date back even further. Storytelling has long been a cornerstone of the human existence and George Miller (Babe: Pig in the City) is hoping filmgoing audiences are still hungry for such tales with his new film Three Thousand Years of Longing.
Alithea Bonnie (Tilda Swinton) is a mousy narratologist, spending her days studying the seemingly lost art of storytelling and her night alone in quiet contentment. Aloof, but happily and by choice, she tells herself a carefully crafted narrative of her own isolation. A world of instant gratification and information overload has convinced Alithea that she studies a lost art. Who needs a fantastical tale to explain what science long ago solved? Still, as Alithea shuffles through the doldrums of her life she is tormented by physical manifestations of the very myths and fantasies she studies. Fiction helps her to both explain away her own misery and ignite her combustible imagination.
Colorful and frightening fantasy overcomes Alithea during a lecture in Istanbul, knocking her out. Upon coming to she decides to explore a bazaar and purchases a small glass bottle. Unbeknownst to our skeptical narratologist, her discovery contains the very essence of story and wonder; a mythical Djinn (Idris Elba) waiting to offer her any three — but no more — of her heart’s desires. An expert in tales, Alithea is skeptical of such offers that sound too good to be true so instead of rattling off wishes, the studious woman and logic defying genie engage in an exchange of their own histories.
Story is at the very heart of Three Thousand Years of Longing, much as it is the core of nearly all human existence. While Alithea is right about modernity hushing our need for stories to explain the mysteries of science, the power of oratory has not died with the ascendence of the iPhone. What technology has done is commoditize storytelling to a degree unseen prior. Much of what Miller explores in his first film since 2015’s Fury Road is how the fictions we weave are a part of us and necessary to mask our insecurities as well as inspire us to strive for more.
Elba’s Djinn spends most the film recounting his own arduous journey into the bottle that found Alithea, a myth tracing its own origin. Supposedly a creature of superior memory, much of the Djinn’s recollection is emotion and feeling. His lifetime of longing and attempts to reach out for love have imprisoned him, ultimately landing his cage and its key in the hands of a woman who has buried her desires so far down that she is convinced that her own solitude is bliss. The pair present a perfect dichotomy. Science and story, longing and abstinence, truth and fantasy.
Eventually Alithea makes her wishes, but that is hardly the point. Miller wisely sets aside the things that we’ve all seen in the Disney version and instead gives voice to the stories that exist only within the fluidity of fairytales. He focuses on the folly of lovelorn genies, the ruthlessness of power mad tyrants and anyone else whose love story never got told. It’s the intangibility that matters, maybe such narratives can no longer explain why the Earth circles the sun, but they may be the only thing that can explain why people are so driven and easily duped by love.
Although meditative in parts, Three Thousand Years of Longing is anything but restrained. Without boasting the same high octane propulsion of Fury Road, Miller’s latest is still visually captivating in its own right. Over the top CG and blurred outlines give the artifice of fantasy and a dynamic camera breathes fresh life into age old tales. Even in the moments of stillness Swinton and Elba command the screen to a degree that keeps the whole film captivating.
Pulled altogether, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a massively entertaining story about storytelling told by one of our most bombastic storytellers. Even as we can know the world more exactly we still need imagination to see what it and we can still become. 8/10