If the notion of Idris Elba spinning fantastical yarns about the Queen of Sheba or the court of Suleiman the Magnificent with silky smooth (albeit somewhat melancholy) intonation sounds like your cup of tea, then Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller’s follow-up to his 2015 action extravaganza probably belongs near the top of your “must see” list. Adapted from a 1994 short story, Three Thousand Years of Longing follows solitary narratologist Alithea (Tilda Swinton) as she purchases an antique bottle while on holiday in Istanbul and — quite by surprise — summons a centuries-old Djinn (Elba) who offers to grant her heart’s desire.
Being well versed in the myths and legends surrounding the Djinn’s kind, Alithea is rather skeptical of this arrangement. After all, Djinn are known to be malicious tricksters, and as far as she can recollect, every story or fable about wishing is ultimately a cautionary tale. Throw in the fact that Alithea is actually quite content with her life and can’t possibly think of anything to wish for, and the unlikely pair are caught in a stalemate: the Djinn can only be freed from his porcelain prison by granting three wishes to whomever conjured him, but Alithea has no desire to avail herself of his considerable power.
Instead, the storyteller in Alithea prompts her to inquire about the Djinn’s history of confinement. How did he come to be trapped in the bottle to begin with? And so begin the aforementioned tales, with the Djinn sadly recounting a life bursting with passion, misfortune, love, betrayal, treachery and nearly everything in between. Three Thousand Years of Longing frequently whisks us away from Alithea’s hotel room to exotic locales, such as the extravagant throne room where Solomon won the heart — or at the very least, the lust — of Sheba, or the sprawling catacombs beneath a desert palace in the midst of the Ottoman empire.
The film’s marketing campaign is clearly hoping to use Miller’s lavish visual style as a beacon to lure audiences to the theater, but despite these visually sumptuous excursions, the true attraction here is the burgeoning bond between Alithea and her otherworldly visitor, as her caution gives way to curiosity, and then perhaps to something else entirely. There’s a certain sweetness to the intimacy they share, first in her hotel room and then later in her London flat; both Swinton and Elba play these notes exquisitely, and one would be hard pressed to think of a more ideal casting choice.
The languid pacing of Three Thousand Years of Longing might be off-putting for moviegoers expecting the same sort of frenetic energy that defined Fury Road, but Miller, whose other works include Happy Feet and Babe: A Pig in the City, has made a career out of zigging when most assumed he would zag. The source material is clearly personal — Miller wrote the adaptation alongside his daughter and has reportedly been trying to mount the production for about two decades — and there’s something delightful about a filmmaker taking big swings (not all of them successful) in service of telling such an earnest tale.