George Miller is a filmmaker known for grandeur and spectacle. His films are famous for providing engaging storytelling mixed with borderline-bombastic visuals and are nearly always a memorable, impression-making experience. As a result, they are often considered cinematic events. In his first film since 2015’s smash success MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Miller impressively balances intimate, thoughtful storytelling with his signature stellar aesthetic whimsy.
At its heart, THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING is a story about storytelling and its effects on others. It’s about sharing. It’s about intimacy. Miller has wanted to transform A. S. Byatt’s short novel “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” from page to screen since the late nineties. I’m grateful he finally did.
Tilda Swinton plays Alithea, a solitary and successful narratologist (of course she does) visiting Istanbul to present the gradual dissolution of wonder and lore in storytelling through the ages. In modern times, sweeping, ancient legends of yore are now neatly compacted into social media posts and comic books, seemingly stripping away our sense of any magic in the world. (The themes of compacting, categorizing, and confinement is well-explored throughout.) She happens upon an old, damaged glass bottle in a market that houses a powerful, lonely Djinn—tenderly portrayed by Idris Elba. Here we are cleverly presented with a highly intelligent, unimpulsive, observant, and cautious character reacting to the prospect of three nearly-limitless wishes who fully understand the warning, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Swinton portrays a woman with no partner or family who lives a comfortable, satisfying life. She is thoughtful, patient, and kind. There is no irony in her living a single life—no shame placed upon an educated woman traveling the world to collect and retell others’ stories. And yet she leaves just enough room for an arc. Her journey presents the comparison of contentment vs. happiness.
Elba, existing in a very different form of solitude (trapped in bottles, unseen, for thousands of years at a time), delicately walks a line between a fantasy creature and a being with natural, human-like desires. But, like a human, is he to be trusted? Does he truly wish to bring women their hearts’ desires, or does he harbor motives for his gain? In finding out, the viewer will be as enthralled with the stories he tells as they are his luminous pointy ears and neat hand makeup.
While both performances are separately incredible in their rights, it’s their performance together that produces true magic. Their ability to converse honestly and directly with an impressive, natural ability to look deeply into one another’s eyes is even more captivating than the film’s more action-driven sequences.
Speaking of action-driven sequences, the trailer for the film might be misleading to some, leaning more into Millers’ iconic style of high-energy, action-packed epics. However, the film’s greatest strengths are its incredible stillness and restraint. The use of a score is purposely and symbolically sparse, allowing the audience to be drawn in naturally rather than be told how to feel by music. In the theater where I watched the film (Miller and his marketing team have been VERY adamant that audiences experience it in a movie theater), there was a group of rowdy, talkative youngsters (wow, I just said that) sitting in the row in front of me. Based on the trailer, I got the impression that they were expecting a sweeping saga about a genie granting wishes through the ages; I expected them to keep talking and laughing throughout the film. However, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the movie not being what they may have been anticipating, they sat silent and captivated by the gentle, patient film. Despite immature jeers and snickers on their way out, for a solid portion of the movie, it achieved what it set out to do: allow its audience to settle in and appreciate storytelling (whether they wanted to or not.)
While the movie is genuinely engaging, the pacing does walk the line of not being of interest to all audiences. The stories being told hold visual and literary appeal and are appropriately interjected with back-to-now cuts of discourse between our two leads to bring levity; they don’t drag on. It’s the 11-o-clock shift in tone that some may find off-putting. I loved it. (I did not love one story resulting in a disappointing/distracting size-shaming punchline.) Unfortunately, we can’t have it all.
I genuinely responded to the film’s vulnerability. Maybe it was the ennui-bordering-melancholy mood I was in, or my seeing the movie alone/my awareness of my solitude; the fact that I was just ghosted by someone I’d been dating, or just because it’s an engaging movie about loneliness vs. longing, but I think I enjoyed the experience of watching this movie perhaps more than the film itself. This is not to say I didn’t want the movie—I did, very much. But it’s so seldom that a film is released that allows its audience to think instead of forcing it to. You’re drawn in instead of pushed. You think about what it means to be alone: it isn’t bad; it can be good. And the same goes for having companionship. I love A24 films, but if a studio like that had gotten its hands on this script, I could see it becoming too preachy and intellectual for its good. Instead, I appreciate the movie’s complex simplicity. More of this, please.
Upon emerging from his glass bottle cage and telling Alithea she has three wishes, The Djinn informs her that the number three is a number of power. The rest of the movie proves that the combination of Miller, Swinton, and Elba combine to make a powerful, magical trio.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING is available to watch in movie theaters.