Three Thousand Years of Longing is about stories. Myths and fairy tales, to be precise, but the movie is about how stories once were, and will always be, like breath to us. The narrator, Alithea (Tilda Swinton), tells us as much in the opening. We’ll encounter those words again in the coda, a nice rhyme in a movie full of rhymes. The beauty of a story is that it can never be extinguished. They flicker on—through long periods of darkness—ready to show the way again.
Alithea is a narratologist. Stories are her life’s work, and work beckons her to a conference in Istanbul. While disembarking at the terminal, she encounters a short man, hot to the touch and surrounded by vapors. The following day, Alithea faints while delivering her lecture because another man surrounded by vapors, this one significantly taller and more menacing, appears to her in the audience. Later, she tells a concerned colleague that these are not uncommon occurrences. If stories are her life, then it seems plausible that their characters should populate her day-to-day existence.
I know where Alithea is coming from. Sometimes the characters in movies feel more real to me than some of my friends. I grow from their struggles, delight in their triumphs, and think about them as if they are real. I know they exist inside a box of light and shadow, fabricated and composed for my benefit, but I welcome their company and allow them to occupy space in my increasingly crowded mind.
I imagine director George Miller feels the same way. Working with screenwriter Augusta Gore, Miller adapts A.S. Byatt’s story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” into one long metatextual discussion about stories punctuated by moments of virtuosic filmmaking, enchanting images, bawdy humor, and childlike wonder. Three Thousand Years of Longing illustrates how some stories are so familiar they feel like your own—even when they’re not.
Back to the movie: While shopping at a bazaar, Alithea discovers a peculiar-looking bottle, takes it back to her hotel room, and cracks it open while trying to clean it. The Djinn (Idris Elba) emerges and promises to grant Alithea the standard set of three wishes. The usual rules apply: He cannot grant her unlimited wishes, he cannot absolve sin or cure world suffering, etc., etc. But there’s one more caveat that The Djinn does not reveal immediately: The wish must be the heart’s desire of the wisher. There are no tricks at play, only the hidden traps of wanting something against all costs.
Lucky for Alithea, she knows where the traps are. She’s been reading about them her whole life. The Djinn knows this. In Alithea, he sees something of himself. He also knows he must grant her three wishes or suffer dire consequences. So, to urge her to wish, he tells Alithea three tales. His three tales of imprisonment in the bottle and the masters he served. Alithea listens with rapt attention. She knows the structure of the stories but not the shading.
Ditto for the audience. The Djinn’s stories take wild turns and unexpected detours. The stories illustrate love and longing, betrayal and trickery, hope and punishment. And loneliness. Enough to crush an empire. The Djinn’s loneliness comes courtesy of the bottle, but his three thousand years are on par with what Alithea has gone through. Like The Djinn, she cast her loneliness as a plus, tricking herself into believing that what she has is what she wants. The trick works about as well for her as it does for him.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a marvelous movie. Miller and cinematographer John Seale move the camera with ease and excitement. There are no boring compositions in the movie, and plenty of them make new that which is ancient. A few of them are curious, but what would a good story be without a couple of questionable inclusions?
And though a story about stories might seem straightforward, Three Thousand Years of Longing is as twisty as they come. Elba and Swinton are outstanding, particularly Elba, who emerges from the bottle as big as Rex Ingram in The Thief of Bagdad before becoming his own djinn. He shrinks in size but never in stature. Nothing here plays out as you might expect, much like the best stories out there. In hindsight, they seem so familiar. But while you’re in them, nothing feels quite as unique.
Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)
Directed by George Miller
Written by Augusta Gore, George Miller
Based on the short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A.S. Byatt
Produced by George Miller, Doug Mitchell
Starring: Aamito Lagum, Anna Betty Adams, Anne Charleston, Burcu Gölgedar, David Collins, Ece Yüksel, Erdil Yasaroglu, George Shevtsov, Idris Elba, Jack Braddy, Lachy Hulme, Matteo Bocelli, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Nicolas Mouawad, Ogulcan Arman Uslu, Sabrina Dhowre Elba, Sarah Houbolt, Seyithan Özdemir, Tilda Swinton, Vince Gil, Zerrin Tekindor
MGM, Rated R, Running time 108 minutes, Opens Aug. 26, 2022
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