What does “storytelling” even mean anymore? It’s kinda hard to say in today’s landscape of big-budget sequels and endless franchises, with anyone who oversees them labeled a “storyteller” simply for keeping the narrative together. So it’s also pretty ironic that it’s George Miller, who in 2015 delivered the badass sequel Mad Max: Fury Road, is the director who has delivered the finest ode to storytelling’s true worth with Three Thousand Years of Longing. A gorgeous, passionate, epic, and deeply intimate fairy tale that is both a two-hander love story set in a hotel and a vast time-spanning fantasy. That it also features Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba as its only two stars is just the welcome icing on the cake.
The story, and that is what this truly can be called, is based on the number three. The number three has power, or so says a Djinn (Elba) to Dr. Alithea Binnie (Swinton), a narratologist who studies narrative structure and the commonality between narratives. She’s in Istanbul for a conference, but it’s really just a brief respite from her all-too-tidy life, one in which she’s literally boxed up and packed away memories of her ex-husband and the child she does not have. Alithea is comfortable being alone, with her books and stories and trinkets. It’s the latter, an antique bottle found at a curiosity shop, that sparks her interest. And it’s while absentmindedly cleaning it in her room that she pops the cap off, and out springs the Djinn, billowing purple smoke and coalescing into gigantic, imposing physical form.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a story about the power of three; three times the Djinn was incarcerated in a bottle, the three women that he has loved, and of course, the three wishes he must now grant to Alithea. Adapted by Miller and Doug Mitchell from A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, the film transports us dizzyingly from a plain, modern hotel suite to many tales of Middle Eastern royal intrigue, from a throne room full of anthropomorphic attendants to an unwanted heir’s literal orgy of excess in a hidden chamber room. The CGI-laden journey is fantastical and glorious, but also horrific and grotesque. The Djinn is a being of pure magic and so is the world in which he walks, where men turn to spiders and kings weave spells as deadly as they are awesome.
While these amazing fables are being spun, there’s also the tete-a-tete between the Djinn and Alithea, told mostly while the two are in their bathrobes. He has offered her three wishes, but she is cultured enough not to jump right in and demand the first thing that springs to mind. For she knows that every single tale involving djinn (or genies) is a cautionary tale that rarely turns out well for the one making wishes. Much to the Djinn’s dismay, he has encountered the one person in all of time who does not seem to want for anything. Of course, his stories, full of desire (notably for the Queen of Sheba), intensity, and suffering, have a way of waking something up inside of Alithea, but also inside of himself.
John Seale’s sumptuous cinematography keeps the energy alive whether zipping through Biblical history or traveling with Alithea on an airplane or capturing the vapors from a hot shower. Seale’s camera soaks up every detail and paints a storybook picture where love and life are captured in the moment. Elba and Swinton embody this beautifully. It’s like every word Alithe and Djinn say to one another is a piece of a larger story, and as that story grows, the emotional walls between them begin to crumble. This is evident in the impassioned performances by Swinton and Elba, and makes Miller’s later breaking of a cardinal storytelling rule, to “tell” rather than “show”, all the more sinful.
It’s presented to us in the beginning that stories are humanity’s way of explaining the world. Stories are how we make sense of our time on this world. But it’s more than that. We live on this world so we can keep telling stories that will last well beyond our brief existence. Not all of the chapters in Three Thousand Years of Longing are coherent enough to stick to the core theme, but when dealing with matters of love does anything truly make logical sense? Miller spins a timeless tale that feels like it has been passed down across generations, but certainly doesn’t fit with today’s thirst for blockbuster cinematic universe content. But for those who are thirsty for a good story told well by a filmmaker showing his impeccable range, you won’t need three wishes.
Three Thousand Years of Longing opens in theaters on August 26th.