Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
George Miller has the weirdest IMDb page. If you don’t believe me, go check. This is the guy who created Mad Max and directed the entire series of movies and also wrote and directed Babe: Pig in the City and won an Oscar for Happy Feet, which he wrote, directed, and produced. That being the case, there’s not a lot that feels outside of his wheelhouse, so Three Thousand Years of Longing, a tale of magical realism involving a scholar and a djinn is certainly not outside of the realm of his oeuvre.
And, that’s exactly what Three Thousand Years of Longing is. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is an academic who studies narrative. She is entirely content with her life, living alone and without a great deal of close contact with other people. But, it’s the life that she wants. On a trip to a conference in Istanbul, she purchases a small glass bottle. Cleaning the bottle, she uncorks it and releases a djinn (Idris Elba). The djinn, who is never named anything aside from “Djinn” offers her three wishes, which he says she must take. If she does not, he is essentially trapped on this world and unable to return to the land of his people.
However, Alithea is an expert on narrative and knows exactly what tends to happen when someone is granted a series of wishes. Djinn are thought of as notorious tricksters, and anyone who actually uses the wishes of the djinn comes to regret it, since the wishes are granted literally and in the worst way possible, not based on the wisher’s intent. The djinn protests that he is not a trickster and really wants to fulfill her heart’s desire so that he can be freed, and to demonstrate this to her, he agrees to tell her his story of his three previous finders and how he came to be trapped in the bottle he was in.
This is both the strongest and the weakest point of the film, depending on the person watching. If you are someone interested in narrative and the way that stories work, these tales are going to feel like listening to the Arabian Nights. While they do offer a little bit of insight into the nature of the djinn, they are almost purely narrative. They are tales that exist for their own sake, and hopefully showing us that the djinn is not truly a trickster, but is honest in his desire to grant wishes to the person who finds him.
These stories about his past and his previous “owners” are intercut with Alithea’s reactions to the stories and her own comments, much of which deals with the nature of the narrative and the fact that, even if he is truly being honest, the wishes that he is granting have a tendency to work out poorly for everyone involved. His adventures in granting wishes led him to being tossed into the ocean more than once, trapped until the bottle was returned to the surface and fell into the possession of another person.
It is noteworthy that all of the djinn’s encounters are with women. His attempts to find a male owner (out of desperation, not any sexist tendencies) fail, and even though nothing good comes of his encounters with women, it is with them that he seems the most at home. The djinn on multiple occasions becomes infatuated with the women who possess his bottle, and thus becomes trapped by them in a different way, in one case going so far as to preventing someone from making a third wish lest he be banished from her presence.
It seems very strange to say this, but Miller feels very much attuned to the sensibilities and desires of women much as a filmmaker like Pedro Almodovar has a strong feminist and feminine sense to many of his films. This is not a film that is necessarily “for” women, but is one that fully embraces a feminine viewpoint.
It is also absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous. There is a real sense of magic here, a sense of the djinn as a creature not quite of this world and not quite at home in this world, but still real. The motes of dust and fire that follow his movements and presence are subtle, but are also the real indication of the magic that exists in the world of the film. Miller wants this film to be a riot of color and expression, perhaps in contrast to a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, and he succeeds wildly. It is a film that is beautiful to look at while the stories unfold around us.
Three Thousand Years of Longing was a terrible failure at the box office last year, making back only about a third of its budget. That’s a shame, because it really is a film worthy of being experienced. There are reasons that I think are likely for its failure. For a film about narrative, it doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative structure. Alithea doesn’t make her first wish until essentially the end of the second act. It’s also a film that doesn’t really analyze well. It’s just a lovely story and not a lot more. But for me, it’s more than enough.
Why to watch Three Thousand Years of Longing: It’s a lovely fairy tale.
Why not to watch: It moves more slowly than you might want.