Three Thousand Years of Longing Review: An Absorbing but Uneven Ride with Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba

Mad Max's George Miller has returned with a film about storytelling and djinns
Three Thousand Years of Longing Review: An Absorbing but Uneven Ride with Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba

Director: George Miller
Writer: George Miller and Augusta Gore
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Pia Thunderbolt, Anthony Moisset, Alyla Browne

George Miller's Three Thousand Years of Longing, his first film in seven years, is a story about stories, the timeless myths that find resonance today, the little fictions we tell ourselves in order to get by. If Jordan Peele's Nope, which released in theatres a week earlier, was a scathing study of how the addiction to spectacle will someday kill us all, Three Thousand Years of Longing is its moving counterpoint, asserting that the stories we pour parts of ourselves into are crucial to our survival. In the modern world, where even the ancient gods have found themselves cut down to size until they fit neatly into the confines of a comic-book movie adaptation, what hope is there for the rest of us to make ourselves heard? Where the act of flying through the sky in a giant metal tube or summoning music from a glass slate in our hand is taken for granted, what's left for us to marvel at anymore?

There are marvels aplenty in Three Thousand Years of Longing, adapted from AS Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. The film spans millennia and continents, traversing from the Queen of Sheba's reign to the empire of Suleiman the Magnificent to the frenzied mind of a 19th century woman inventor. Glimpses into these fantastical, beautifully rendered CGI civilisations are granted through the stories narrated by a Djinn (an imposing Idris Elba), inadvertently rescued from his bottled prison by narratologist Alithea Binney (Tilda Swinton). He offers her three wishes, she demurs. Her profession has taught her enough to realise that beneath the seductive sheen of every wish-granting fable lies a cautionary tale. So instead, the Djinn tells her of his past incarcerations, his great loves, his aching losses. His propensity for falling madly in love has cost him his freedom several times over, her adamant insistence on being better off alone has let a gaping loneliness hold her hostage. Alithea has stories too, only she's compartmentalised them in the corner of her mind, to be put away in storage and left untouched.

As Miller flits between the past and present, the vivid surreality of the Djinn's past experiences and the stark whiteness of Alithea's hotel room, he lets the similarities emerge from among the differences. Technology may have propelled the world forward at an alarming rate, but human beings, at their core, have stayed much the same. Some themes — jealousy, heartbreak, grief, the fragility of connection — are unchanging throughout the Djinn's stories. The visual tics of the women in his past are replicated in Alithea's behaviour. 

There are stretches that are utterly absorbing but it's disappointing how a film about the power of stories steadily begins to lose its own as the narrative progresses. Swinton and Elba are fine performers, imbuing each chronicle with pain and delicate yearning, but even they can't steady the flimsy ground their eventual relationship is based on. Falling in love counts as its own act of magic and yet there's nothing about their romance that conveys the all-encompassing force of nature it's written as. The third-act setting of the modern world, where real life intrudes on fantasy deflates the momentum (a stretch involving Alithea's bigoted neighbours is grating and its resolution incredibly juvenile.) At several points towards the end, the screen fades to black, only to spring to life a few seconds later and continue the story, as though each ending had been judged, deemed unsuitable and discarded on a whim. 

A film about the 'magic of storytelling' might sound trite but despite its flaws, Miller imbues his with a poignant lesson — to write about life, you must first have lived it. There are stretches of Three Thousand Years of Longing that feel truly alive. It understands how stories can soothe and nourish, how they can provide companionship in tough times. And how the best ones reflect a little bit of their reader back at them.

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