George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing is also like breath. Inhale the rich color palette of the Middle East with all its spices and spaces. Smell the curries, turmeric and saffron of the bazaar. Then exhale any preconceived notions. Writer/Director George Miller and his daughter/Co-Writer, Augusta Gore have written a rich contemplation of love, loss and the stories that skillfully engage our imagination. They carry us to a realm where ancient tales are crafted, and the mythic and mortal meet to spin a yarn for the ages. Adapted from the short story, The Djinn in the Nightengale’s Eye by British writer A.S. Byatt, this oral tapestry of star-crossed lovers and political intrigue spanning centuries, is the fodder of legendary ancient narratives ala Scheherazade and 1,001 Arabian Nights. How appropriate then that the female lead of this film is an expert on story. Three Thousand Years of Longing matches story and its power, with the only thing that could be more powerful – love. Maybe that is why it is so deeply enjoyable.
We are introduced to the brilliant mind of renowned narratologist, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a self-described solitary creature, whose unruly imagination conjures up unreal friends and enables her to engage the seen and the unseen. The always riveting Swinton delivers an Alithea whose aplomb and curiosity render her perfectly placed in lofty intellectual circles like the conference she’s attending in Istanbul, but we struggle to take seriously her heart cry for romantic love, given her convincing banter about self-sufficiency and the joys of solitude. Nevertheless, fate has another plan. This perfectly content and unsuspecting intellectual has a most fantastic encounter with the deeply feeling and complex mythical character known only as Djinn (Idris Elba). Trapped in a trinket Alithea picks up in the bazaar in Istanbul, the Djinn (genie) is released in her hotel bathroom and upon exit announces that he must grant three wishes to be eternally released and allowed to return to the realm of his own kind – those of fire, rather than dust (humans).
Archetypal to Muslim lore, the djinn is a mythical character full of mischief and wonder, dwelling in the realm of the unseen but able to influence and engage the seen world. Idris Elba does not disappoint as Djinn. His presentation of this global literary staple is nuanced. This is not the smoldering sex appeal of Stringer Bell or People Magazine’s 2018 Sexiest Man Alive. No, this is a mystical soul tortured by love and loss who remains at its mercy in the presence of the mercurial, and uncooperative, Alithea Binnie. With each release and incarceration, Djinn is deceived by love every time. This is the tale of woe that he shares so poetically with Alithea. From the Queen of Sheba to a 19th century genius maiden, Djinn cannot seem to escape his doom try as he might – but maybe in Alithea there is a glimmer of hope.
Djinn begins to plow his craft again by asking: What is your heart’s desire? What is your wish? What is typical of a genie narrative, becomes the heart cry of every soul to have their heart’s deepest desires granted. Like many, the request and its granting involve love, that most elusive elixir that soothes, satiates, and slays all at the same time. The interplay and exchange between Elba and Swinton are skilled and constrained, each resisting the urge to lean into dated tropes. It is rare anymore to see two actors on screen together in such a nuanced dance of emotion and expression but Elba and Swinton pull it off beautifully and convincingly.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is well worth viewing in the theatre. It will restore your joy in cinematic storytelling and the power of story itself.
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This review was written by Michele R. Brown, an author, critical thinker and storyteller. Follow Michele @micheles_pen on Twitter and @MichelezPen on Facebook.