A romantic fantasia set in Istanbul, George Miller’s mystical confection operates like the genie at its heart: it’s full of visual sleight-of-hand and boasts plenty of storytelling power, but soon disappears from your mind in a puff of smoke.
Miller has weaved Three Thousand Years of Longing from the threads of A.S. Byatt’s short story ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’, and the ingredients are so promising: aside from the Australian’s own rep, recently burnished by his modern masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, it boasts the promising pairing of Idris Elba, as an ancient djinn released from a glass bottle, and Tilda Swinton. With a heavy Yorkshire burr, she plays the solitude-prizing academic, Alithea Binnie, who does the releasing in her hotel room, after picking the vessel up by chance in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
From there… well, you know the drill: the professor gets three wishes with the usual rules (no, you can’t wish for endless more wishes). Once granted, the djinn is finally free.
Instead, Alithea, a narratologist, teases the djinn’s millennia-spanning story from him. He regales her with a tale full of treacherous kings, beautiful princesses and blissed-out harems straight out of ‘Arabian Nights’. She sits, rapt, and for a time, so do we.
But while it makes interesting observations about how stories help us make sense of our world, Three Thousand Years of Longing suffers from a glaring lack of chemistry between the two leads. A romance of sorts is supposed to be blooming before our eyes – albeit birthed within a slightly problematic master-slave dynamic – but it never remotely feels like it.
It’s full of visual sleight-of-hand, but it immediately disappears from your mind in a puff of smoke
And for all the enchantment of its mythical tales, their visualisation is oddly unappealing, too. It’s a film of interiors – of hotel rooms and throne rooms – and they’re all regularly smothered in cheap-looking VFX. Lurid smoke pours out of the djinn’s pixie ears in a way that makes you wish Alithea would reach for the nearest fire extinguisher.
Still, you’d have to be hard-hearted not to find something to like in Miller’s quirky vision – even if it’s just that he got to make it in the first place. For me, it’s Elba’s performance: a commanding yet vulnerable presence as the djinn, he seizes the screen and then yields it again as the moment requires. You’ll wish for more roles as mercurial and unexpected as this for the Londoner.
Three Thousand Years of Longing premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.