Directed by George Miller
Written by Augusta Gore and George Miller (based on the short story "The Djinn In the Nightingale's Eye" by A.S. Bryant")
In the interests of keeping the annoying "prefatory metadiscussion" paragraph to the absolute bare minimum this time, let's simply nod to the fact that the newest effort by Film Person favorite George Miller did really badly when it was released in the August of this year, and of course this led to a bit of obligatory gnashing of teeth, since it's yet another data point in favor of the depressing and stultifying proposition that there is no longer a place for mid-budget, non-franchise, or director-driven cinema (choose any, it's all three) in our current industrial ecosystem. Fortunately, I don't have to make any shame-faced admissions in this case: I actually did go to theaters to see it, and merely lost track of reviewing it due to time (and the suspicion that I owed it a rewatch, as maybe I'd missed some subtleties), though I certainly enjoyed it; accordingly, I gnashed my teeth a little with the rest, though, if you'll allow me a brief counterfactual, I'm also not especially sanguine about the reception that Three Thousand Years of Longing would have gotten if it had been seen by anybody beyond almost literally just mid-budget/non-franchise/director-driven cinema fans (it made a pitiful eighteen million bucks in its entire run), because I'm not sure it's the kind of film mass audiences would have enjoyed if they did see it. After all, it would barely be exaggerating to describe it as not any "kind" of film in the first place, rather than something almost sui generis, or at least of a very rare complexion, and people often do not like things that are even slightly difficult to categorize. But then again, nothing about the fairly aggressive marketing campaign for the film indicated any of that, and, good grief, those mass audiences were happy to spend like a billion fucking dollars on what I have every right to assume is the shitty version of Aladdin, so they might as well have at least given a film that was presented to them as the adult-oriented, good version of Aladdin a chance.
So: Three Thousand Years of Longing, a cool and evocative title, and despite that also quite descriptive of its story. Or, as the case may be, stories. Stories are the life's work of Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a scholar of narratology—perhaps she works at the same university as Robert Langdon—presently en route to a narratologists' conference in Istanbul. This is her story, we're told, nearly the very first sounds of the film being Alithea's voiceover, in which she pledges that her story is true (her rather ironic name, in Greek, means "truth," specifically "that which has reality"), but she avers that we will more readily believe in it, if she calls it a fairy tale. Signs and portents appear before Alithea, which she ignores; yet in the midst of giving a presentation to a very large assembly of scholars who are, surprisingly, not the least bit disappointed to have flown all the way to Turkey so that someone can basically just define the word "mythology" for them, Alithea is confronted with a bizarrely-attired demon, god, or ghost, who listens with hostility until she gets to her thesis, that myth has crumbled in the face of scientific knowledge, at which point he cries "rubbish!" with such force that it sends her into a full faint.
After recovering from this, but not especially worried or on her guard, for by her own admission she's a creature of overactive imagination, Alithea goes out to rifle through the junk at the souvenir shops, and in one of these she finds what she was perhaps fated to find, a white bottle with a blue swirl which, when she pokes at it in her hotel, turns out to contain a djinn of legend (Idris Elba). With his superhuman powers, he soon enough conforms himself to both Alithea's scale and to her language, and he explains that, as she has freed him, she is owed in return three wishes—well, you know how that story goes. So does Alithea, and she is very reluctant to commit to even one, noting that every tale of wishes ends unhappily for the wisher, but the djinn is insistent, explaining that in pursuing his heart's desire against a powerful foe, he was cursed to give a mortal their heart's desire, and without fulfilling three wishes, no fewer, he will remain a prisoner on our mortal plane, unseen and unheard and unfree. Alithea considers, but in the meantime, to convince her, the djinn tells her of his misfortunes, and how in three thousand years he has somehow not quite succeeded in getting even one mortal to make those three wishes.
This is where Three Thousand Years becomes unusual, as I've only actually described the first fifteen or so minutes of a 108 minute film. There is breathless efficiency here, in order to get to what it most wants to do: put Swinton and Elba in a room together and have them talk while flashing back across the last three millennia of the djinn's immortal life. That's not even the unusual part yet; what makes it unusual is its construction, so that for about a full hour of screentime, we are almost never so much as one minute away from Elba's voiceover narration. The vignettes that accompany Elba's narration are more akin to summary than to conventional cinematic storytelling; it's not a radical innovation in technique we have here, as it's basically the same kind of cutaway montage that attends any brief expository sequence in movies, but to have so much of it for so long is, unless I am very mistaken, practically unheard of. It's profoundly distancing, but in exactly the right way that a story about stories spanning three thousand years should be distant; as our djinn describes his love for Sheba (Aamito Lagum), his imprisonment by the jealous wizard Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad), his incomplete indenture to ill-fated Ottoman concubine Gülten (Ece Yüksel), and so on, it offers the delightful sensation of turning the pages of a gorgeously-appointed storybook, all key images capturing individual beats and poses and feelings, communicating the vastness of a mythic past to the present.
That's how it works, formally, at least, and having seen it twice I think I admire how much these stories are to be taken on their own merits, and how completely Miller and Augusta Gore's screenplay (based, I cannot say how faithfully, on A.S. Bryant's short story) resists imposing any kind crushingly schematic message, moral, or theme upon the collection of tales as a whole—at least besides the basic fact that, like pretty much all stories ever told, they naturally involve desire and foolishness, and a certain tension between love and freedom. (That said, the important things—wishes, lovers—are typically arranged in threes.) The downside is the same as the upside: they are to some degree random, all interesting in their own right, but nothing about them builds towards something (well, not within themselves, and not noticeably outside themselves until Miller starts to signpost it), and while packing them in like this is safe (they essentially can't get boring) they can never grow especially elaborate, either. There is also less craziness than you might expect: other than the very occasional bit where something overwhelmingly supernatural splashes into the film—for example, an ifrit (who, weirdly, apparently loves John Carpenter) comes out of nowhere to stymie our djinn, and he goes right back to nowhere, never ever to be seen again—the magic that drives this story is surprisingly low-key, and not so high-key when it does come to make up for it, though I like, for example, djinn sexuality rendered as a mystical merging. I mean, yeah: it's Miller operating in fantasy mode, so it's always colorful and intoxicating and I suspect he's nursed a long-time desire to play with oriental iconography; nevertheless, it's distinctly possible that the film's loopiest visual ideas are expended entirely upon the emergence of the djinn from his bottle in the hotel, though in fairness it'd be hard to get loopier than pulling Albert Einstein out of his proper place in spacetime by reaching inside a documentary being broadcast on television.
I could be talked into believing that this frontloading is in (very) quiet pursuit of the way the film wants to prosecute an argument about the abyss we've dug out between ourselves and mythic time and mythic ways of seeing the world, but that's one of its problems too: despite having afforded itself the space to tell four stories across nearly the entire length of recorded time, for unfathomable reasons it leaps across almost the entire span of it between the first and the second, from Sheba three thousand years ago to the court of Sulemein the Magnificent (Lachy Hulme), not even five hundred years ago, already well into the modern era. (Also, despite the fact that this story has two dudes in a row named "Solomon" fucking our poor djinn over, I'm actually fairly positive nobody noticed they almost had a motif.)
But for all that it's fair to say I was loving it, seeing these fascinating little vignettes and listening to the anchoring sorrow of Elba's voice (he's doing an accent, but not an identifiable one, all the better). Miller is having a blast illuminating them, with shiny, poppy exotica, as far as I can tell gratifyingly ignorant of the whinier strains of contemporary discourse. He's just diving in headfirst, even self-indulgently at times (considering what's happening in that sable-lined room, I can't say this is a man shy about his fetishes), and, as far that first hour-plus is concerned, he leaves the stupid handwringing to you. Moreover, and more importantly, he's guiding it with a keen awareness about how and when to elliptically move from one illustrating image to the next illustrating image, or, with more of an em-dash than an ellipsis, back to Elba and Swinton instead, if seeing their reactions to the djinn's stories is presently more important than seeing the stories themselves. Yet for a movie that sprawls across history and would seemingly present undeniable temptations towards epic pretense, it is stunningly intimate—another, maybe even more meaningful benefit of that unusual construction—and to an almost absolute degree it is Elba's and Swinton's movie alone. Maybe even mostly his, since he's the storyteller—a Scheherazade, a comparison I'm glad is left to a name of a business in a digital matte painting—but Swinton seizes upon her own opportunities. Limited to, essentially, a framing-device-rendered-as-a-genre-savvy-audience-surrogate, maybe it's for that very reason that when her emotions come to the fore, she gets the strongest individual moments: when she admits that she relates to not just other humans but her own feelings through stories, it's pitched in precisely such a way to make it clear that her film recognizes that this is a far more universal condition than her character quite understands, even though it's her character's literal job to understand it. (This second time through, however, I'm not entirely sure that Swinton isn't being too subtle in the groundwork she's obliged with laying.)
The problem is that this needs an ending ("every story about wishing is a cautionary tale," after all), and after an effectively actless, real-time talk opera, the film grinds every single gear it has, and even several there was no reason to think it had, in its attempt to find its way into its new stakes; I don't think the shift from "fable anthology with a romantic throughline" to "brutely clumsy allegory" is a complete disaster in the end, but that pain is keenly felt during the transition, supplementing the already completely-sufficient magical and emotional rules of its story with some pretty idiotic physical dangers. It's such a nasty swerve: considering all the open invitations it makes to be problematized, I'm a little surprised I never ran across anybody flabbergasted by what I was flabbergasted by, which is the flippant implication that modern day Istanbul doesn't have wi-fi or cellphone towers, in service of a very lazy and unintuitive decision to render London as a toxic, uninhabitable place for a djinn (who turns out to be a being of electromagnetism, but, I mean, aren't we all?). That's the "allegory" part (and only part of the allegory!), either the source material or the film's idea of framing modern life as alienating and toxic, made ugly by too much information and too few stories, or, alternatively, a very iffy attempt to acknowledge the circle it hasn't even begun to bother squaring as regards the dangers of cultural appropriation and the greater dangers of cultural isolationism. (It also decides, apropos of very little, to dump into its final movement a Brexiteer satire from what appears to be an entirely different movie—even the film language changes a bit, veering wackier—so that somehow the most arbitrary shit in the movie happens not in the first three thousand years but the last fifteen minutes.) It spends this entire sixth act (I guess) floundering around, but at the absolute last possible moment, it does find a new groove: it was, of course, a romance all along, albeit one with just enough ambiguity to forever remain a tantalizing, invigorating mystery.