‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’: George Miller’s Mythic Reflection on Storytelling

Without the art of storytelling this would be such an empty world. It is a truth eloquently and wonderfully expressed in “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” the new film from a supreme cinema fabulist, George Miller. A truly eclectic director who has done it all, Miller here dabbles in the very nature of fairy tales. More than that, he paints a grand set of ideas all contained within the themes of love and narratives as boundary breakers. In a time of so many lazy genre films, Miller continues to experiment with unbound creativity. He takes risks where others would play it safe. After the success of his now classic 2015 “Mad Max: Fury Road,” he could have just gone to work for Marvel. Instead, Miller is still chasing after great art.

Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a “narratologist” who lives alone, is content with having her life dominated by academic work. She arrives in Istanbul for a conference and gets cozy at the Pera Palace Hotel. Agatha Christie wrote “Death on the Nile” here, we are told. While exploring the local markets, Alithea purchases an ornamental bottle with traces of fire damage. There is something alluring in the item. Alithea takes it back to her room and while cleaning it up, liberates a djinn who has been trapped in the bottle for centuries. The Djinn (Idris Elba) is in the scholar’s debt and must now grant her three wishes. Ah, but she’s an expert in such mythical entities and knows djinns are notorious tricksters. Few characters in the stories end up well with their three wishes. Annoyed and eager to grant wishes, for it is the life force that keeps him going, the Djinn begins to narrate his own journeys through millennia. He recalls having his heart broken by Queen Sheba and serving various sultans, all the while witnessing violence, ambition and loneliness. 

Miller has always been a director who thrives in the mythical. His lighter, wondrous entertainments, like “Babe,” and its less-loved but excellent sequel, “Babe: Pig in the City,” have the texture of Aesop’s fables or folktales. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was a rather literate action extravaganza, hypnotically filmed with apocalyptic warriors crying to go to Valhalla. Fittingly, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is based on a short story by A.S. Byatt, an author who also masterfully combines legends with hard realism. In the opening passages of the film, Alithea narrates her story by describing flying in an airplane or using an iPhone as mythical occurrences. In ancient times we told stories on tablets of stone, now we use tablets with search engines. We no longer gather around campfires to hear a tale. We are instead flooded with millions of them a day on our screens. And, spinning yarns is what this movie is truly about, along with matters of the heart. The Djinn becomes Alithea’s Scheherazade, waiting out her reluctance to ask for wishes by creating a canvas of experiences with his words.

Visually this is such a rich and controlled film. Miller uses CGI to create memorable moments like the Djinn growing inside Alithea’s apartment, his large fingers grabbing around a door. But it’s in the Djinn’s memories that Miller goes full Fellini with colorful, eye-popping sequences and production design. Ottoman palaces have exquisite pools and harems. Battlefields thunder beneath blood-red skies. A reluctant Turkish prince is sealed away in a room with many plus-size, voluptuous concubines and a wrong wish can send Djinn to the bottom of the Bosphorus. It all looks so classic and yet fresh. Miller has no interest in copying what’s popular now in the comic book movies. He’s making something grand but also profound. All of these lush visuals also convey the theme of each story the Djinn tells. A naïve lover is doomed by her blind devotion to a sultan. Two thousand years ago, King Solomon cynically desires Queen Sheba, even as he plays an instrument with carved faces that sing and move. The Djinn himself has learned the hard way that love can blind us to danger. Even with all his power, he has failed to save others and even himself from harm’s way. 

A lesser director might raise eyebrows with how Miller casts the stories in the film. White actors are mixed together with Black and other people of color in the Djinn’s tales of heartbreak in the Middle East. But the way Miller approaches it, he is also demonstrating the universal power of myth and how it can speak to us all. Idris Elba as the Djinn is charismatic and also melancholy. He’s not the cocky genie of other films but a being worn out by centuries of seeing human nature at work. Muscular with pointy ears, he looks straight out of a storybook, but with a wise sadness in his eyes. When he joins Alithea back in London, Miller bluntly comments on racism in modern England. Alithea’s neighbors chastise her for being interested in the ways of other people, while seeming ashamed of British culture. Can the magic of a Djinn survive in such an ignorant world? His mind can barely handle the millions of frequencies created by the internet in a crammed major city. Like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Miller seems to be holding on to the idea that we must hold on to magic and radical romanticism against a cruel, consumerist world. Alithea yearns for some kind of bond or love, but doesn’t know it because of the illusion of comfort with her day job.

One cannot praise “Three Thousand Years of Longing” without giving Tilda Swinton her due. As an actor she keeps expanding her mark with projects that defy commercial conventions. From intense indies to grand gestures like this, Swinton champions real filmmaking like few other stars of her stature. She makes short films with Pedro Almodovar, searing dramas about school violence with Lynne Ramsay and experimental works in Colombia meant to play forever somewhere in the world without ever being released for streaming. She has never lost the verve that defined earlier films like “Orlando.” Here she keeps it achingly subtle by hiding yearnings that are plain to see. Alithea is smart and has tasted the freedom that comes from leaving a decaying relationship. Yet she is human after all, and while the Djinn is immortal, he understands the pain of wanting love and waiting eons for it. Junkie XL’s music is so elegant and dreamlike, it’s hard to contemplate this is the same artist that has been providing shredding scores for action films. Guided by Miller, these artists have delivered one of the summer’s most original films. It is fantastical and urgent. To love and lose can feel like a fairy tale, especially in a modern world that becomes ever so unreal.

Three Thousand Years of Longing” releases Aug. 26 in theaters nationwide.