Three Thousand Years of Longing

With Tilda Swinton as a narratologist and Idris Elba as a Djinn dispensing wishes, the director of Mad Max: Fury Road spins a heartfelt metaphor for the digital age.
Image may contain Human Person Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba
Tilda Swinton stars as Alithea Binnie and Idris Elba as The Djinn in director George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing. COURTESY OF METRO GOLDWYN MAYER PICTURES INC.

His new film, Three Thousand Years of Longing blends the storybook tones and hues of Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City with the darkly sexualized magic of his The Witches of Eastwick.

It’s a strange curious film, messy in ambition and inconsistently engaging, an earnest labor of love about love.

Tilda Swinton plays Alithea, a narratologist, who travels the world giving lectures on the nature and uses of story throughout history. She speaks of science’s conquering of myth as humanity’s way of codifying knowledge. All the fantastical creatures of old legend have become metaphors.

While in Istanbul, Alithea finds herself confronting one of the very creatures she has reduced to mere trope. She buys an old glass bottle at an antique shop and, back in her hotel room while giving her new prize a scrub with her electric toothbrush, uncorks a long-imprisoned Djinn (Idris Elba). Grateful for his freedom and longing to return to the other plane of Djinn existence, he grants Alithea three wishes. Once that duty is fulfilled, he will ascend.

Alithea, ever the skeptic academic, wants to talk things through. In her conversation with this hulking spirit, Alithea learns the story of the Djinn.

His previous imprisonments were caused by misplaced trust in his human handlers combined with the tricks of fate that govern any life in the world. Miller renders these flashbacks to ancient places—the kingdom of Sheba, the court of Suleiman the Magnificent—with his usual rich saturation, making painterly images from computer technology.

Not all of the visuals in Three Thousand Years of Longing are equally strong or beautiful; some look bad for someone of Miller’s technical acumen. But there is enough offbeat beauty in the film that it is recognizably his.

Not to forget: Miller worked within the severe constraints of COVID-era filmmaking. He’s found his own metaphor for our age; the confines of two people stuck together, who gradually open up into the new vast digital age.

The-catching look of the film is certainly its strongest suit. But this is really a narrative film, based on verbal and talkative discourse.

Miller wrote the script with Augusta Gore, and they’ve given their two main characters philosophical language to contend with. Swinton is a great asker of questions, while Elba answers them commandingly. He’s got an ideal voice for storytelling. Elba’s elegant narration fills the film, conjuring up Miller’s intended mood of grace.

His stories involve a murderous prince, a brilliant woman ahead of her time, a scheming concubine.

These tales each unspool toward a moral lesson, but Miller is not so interested in the fable. Greed and lust and pride can’t be tidily resolved keep the Djinn bouncing lonely and frustrated through time.

Alithea eventually makes her own mortal mistakes, which leads the film to its third act (most underdeveloped and weak), into which Miller inserts contemporary politics, mostly ineffectively.

The film is, unfortunately, peppered with moments that exhibit off-color ugliness, undermining Miller’s intentions.

Three Thousand Years of Longing ultimately can’t serve up a message as thorough and transporting as its overall design. Still, the film’s determination to deliver its homily is impressively endearing.