Three Thousand Years of Longing review

Three Thousand Years of Longing is a pleasure to watch, but doesn’t go far enough

“Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton have great presence, but George Miller’s new film straddles a line between family-friendly and adult that renders it impotent — far too graphic for children, too chaste and whimsical for adults.”

Straddled between old and new worlds, Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a narratologist, does a presentation in Istanbul on the importance of storytelling. Behind her on stage, a screen brimming with superheroes dwarfs her. In the audience, a glowing spectral god of ancient times grows closer and closer until, with a silent scream, he pushes her to the ground. No one else can see him, though, and her colleagues believe she had a fainting spell. Whether it was a figment of her imagination or a real encounter with a fantastic creature of legend, Alithea’s grasp on reality as we know it is on the brink of collapse.

George Miller, the mind behind Mad Max, Babe and Happy Feet, returns to the big screen with Three Thousand Years of Longing, a film that pays homage to the stories we tell. After this incident, Alithea and her host go shopping. She finds a burnt blue and white glass bottle that her friend tries to dissuade her from buying. When she brings it home to her hotel room, she soon finds that it’s no ordinary bottle. It contains a Djinn (Idris Elba), a creature of legend prepared to grant her three wishes.

As Alithea has built a life around storytelling, she’s understandably apprehensive. Aren’t all stories about wish-giving meant to be cautionary tales? Besides, Alithea is happy with her life. She loves what she studies, values her independence and gets to travel the world. With a singular goal in mind (his freedom), Djinn tries to persuade her by telling her stories of his long life brimming with desire, betrayal and longing. 

Three Thousand Years of Longing review
Three Thousand Years of Longing

The film is structured primarily around millennia-spanning vignettes that touch on figures of mythological history, including the beautiful Queen of Sheba and other imagined archetypal figures. Though imbued with immortal life and incredible power, Djinn finds himself regularly at the mercy of temptation, driven by earthly pleasures and powerful lust for freedom in his most vulnerable moments. 

The narrative’s most compelling quality is its approach to destructive desire when our passions override reason. What happens when we give in to a desire doomed to imprison us? Why can we derive so much pleasure from being entrapped by the need for someone else’s flesh? While hardly sexless, the more erotic possibilities of these questions are pushed aside in favour of more romantic notions, mainly as Alithea grows increasingly curious about the kind of love her Djinn may be capable of. Despite the clear erotic undertones, the film maintains a strange chasteness in its approach to the subject, far less interested in evoking the pitfalls of lust than underlining the importance of storytelling.

There’s something so compelling about these stories surrounding questions of lust. In contrast to that first moment of Swinton standing before a crowd of frozen superheroes on-screen, the film seems to underline how their role as “modern mythology” often fails to touch on sex, such a fundamental and necessary value in our lives and our storytelling. As the film goes on and enters its third act, we are further introduced to close-minded and bigoted characters who seem blind to the majesty of the world at large, choosing not to look beyond the borders of their experience.

Is it possible that Miller is making a statement, not just about the harm and coldness of remaining cold to other cultures and people, but also how that might apply to the art we consume? What happens when we refuse to watch anything that isn’t specifically catered to our tastes through a series of focus groups and algorithms? How much spiritually poorer do we become?

Overall though, Three Thousand Years of Longing only half works. It straddles a line between family-friendly and adult that renders it impotent — far too graphic sexually and in terms of violence for children, but somehow, too chaste and whimsical for adults. As it can’t quite cross a threshold into challenging strangeness or perversion, it remains safe as a proposal, failing to probe deep enough to linger in your unconscious.

Yet, it’s precisely the film I yearn for as an audience. Unlike so many bland and grey films, Three Thousand Years of Longing uses its special effects to tremendous and creative impact. Elba and Swinton have great presence, and it’s hard to discount the daring involved in featuring largely unknowns on-screen in a sprawling epic. The movie never overstays its welcome and brims with small details in image, sound and storytelling that are inspired and exciting. Even if it’s far from my personal favourite in his filmography, Miller’s work is always a pleasure to engage with. ■

Three Thousand Years of Longing, directed by George Miller

Three Thousand Years of Longing opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 26.

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