Can’t believe it’s been seven years since George Miller directed one of my fave movies in the past decade, Mad Max: Fury Road. I love the visual style of Fury Road and Three Thousand Years of Longing is yet another visual feast from the Australian filmmaker. Miller and his own daughter Augusta Gore co-wrote the script based on A. S. Byatt’s mythical short story collection The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye published in 1994.
When one thinks of a Djinn, which has been anglicized as genie, one might immediately think of Aladdin. Well, there are definitely some similarities in that it’s inspired by Middle Eastern folk tales Arabian Nights and that the Djinn is stuck inside a bottle for centuries, but this movie isn’t exactly a modern riff of Aladdin. The story centers on a British literary scholar Alithea (Tilda Swinton) who’s been invited to a trip to Istanbul and she’s often plagued by bizarre hallucinations, some could be so debilitating that it would cause her to faint.
When she purchases an antique bottle from a local store, she discovers a Djinn in the form of Idris Elba has been trapped for centuries. Thankfully, Elba’s Djinn isn’t as incessantly-chatty as Aladdin’s genie, though he’s also physically gigantic and implores his newfound master to make three wishes. The eternally charming Brit still looks quite fetching even with hairy blue legs and elven ears.
I rather enjoy the amusing banter between Elba and Swinton who have such fun effortless chemistry as polar opposites. Alithea is all reasons and emotionally detached, while Djinn is all about feelings and emotional connection. Swinton is such a versatile actor who can play basically any role and she’s pretty funny here as a reclusive academic who claims she’s content with everything in her life. In most circumstances, I’d find that sentiment hard to believe, but Alithea is so earnest in her convictions which proves a challenge for Djinn. Miller makes the most of Elba’s imposing physique and distinctive deep voice, made even more beguiling the more he reveals his vulnerability.
Most of the movie takes place inside Alithea’s hotel room as the Djinn takes her on a vicarious journey as he tells her three fantastical tales of how he ends up inside the bottle. Miller and his longtime DP John Seale weave their magic in creating stunning visuals with dynamic camera work through opulent palaces and cob-webbed dungeons. The three tales involve Queen Sheba seducing King Solomon, Ottoman King Suleiman’s concubine in love with his son Prince Mustafa (featuring Matteo Bocelli who also wrote a song for the film), and lastly, the Djinn himself falling for the genius wife of a Turkish merchant. All of them have one thing in common, that is, the final wish goes un-fulfilled, thus the Djinn remains trapped.
Miller is such a versatile director who can tackle any genre. I love that after a long hiatus, he chooses to pay homage to the power of storytelling and timeless tales. It’s apparent that Miller is enchanted by this wondrous narrative spanning 3000 years and he’s definitely got the flair to make the ancient worlds come alive with vibrant colors and CGI effects. A few of the key crew from Fury Road are back to do this one – Seale came out of retirement as DP and Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL did the score. The world-building is meticulously-crafted, thanks to the ornate production design by Roger Ford and the gorgeous costumes by Kym Barrett.
Not all of the tales are equally spellbinding however. At times I was weirded out, befuddled, and even drained by the frenetic editing and rapid pacing. But despite the visual overload, the story remains engaging to me and by the end, like Alithea, I too was won over by Djinn’s heartfelt tale of not just wanting to be free, but also to be loved. The most memorable cinematic love stories have elements of the unexpected and a deep sense of longing, which makes this fairy tale less fluffy than your typical Disney fare. As they say, the greatest act of love is letting go, this movie exemplifies that beautifully in the end that I couldn’t help tearing up a bit.
I feel compelled to address the issue of problematic casting that some reviewers have mentioned, that is the casting of a black actor in the role of a Djinn trapped for millennia until a white woman frees him. Honestly though, as a Southeast Asian-born critic, it didn’t even cross my mind while I was watching it, as race isn’t a factor in the story and Elba has continually done roles that break stereotypes. I also don’t see the movie as a white-savior story as Alithea is as much in need of saving as the Djinn here.
Thus, despite all the sheer spectacle, the movie’s strength lies in the charisma of the two leads who manage to ground even the most outlandish flight of fancy. The film actually works best as a two-hander and the simplest interactions between them in that hotel room generate the most emotional power.
Have you seen Three Thousand Years of Longing? I’d love to hear what you think!