I’ll be the first person ever to say Mad Max: Fury Road was not only a revelation but a masterpiece of cinema. (No one has ever said that before me, don’t Google it.) Its mastermind, George Miller, proved yet again he’s a tremendous visual storyteller with a particular sense of the fantastic. It’s easy to pigeonhole him into action, but he also gave us the Babe and Happy Feet movies. He contains multitudes. For Miller’s first post-Fury Road outing, Three Thousand Years of Longing, he definitely turned out something different. However, it didn’t quite succeed in the timeless romance it (apparently) tried to convey.
I wanted to unabashedly love this movie, and for a little while I thought I might. It’s all about the power of stories and narrative and the value of attaining your heart’s desire even at the expense of everyday comfort and stability. It has a sumptuous visual sense (not surprising) and stars two superb actors essentially talking in one room for most of the runtime. It’s atypical, for sure, but it could have been as amazing as one would hope. But it also trades in some highly questionable stereotypes, size-shaming, and ideas about what constitutes humor. By the end, it turns into a ham-fisted romance.
Tilda Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a renowned scholar of narrative, who ends up in Istanbul for a conference. As chance would happen, she gets an ornate but dirty bottle from a shop. When she cleans it, she releases an ancient Djinn, played by Idris Elba. The Djinn quickly learns English and attempts to get Alithea to make three wishes. He needs someone to make three wishes or he’ll never be free. Trouble is, of course, that Alithea is outwardly a perfectly contented person who longs for nothing. Or does she? To prove his point, the Djinn tells her his story of how he wound up bound to mortal wishes, and how love has kept him trapped for 3,000 years.
Essentially, this discussion makes up two-thirds of the movie. Flashbacks to the Djinn’s ensnarement and how each time someone frees him from his bottle, love and human foible sends him back. Some of these stories have intrigue of their own, specifically a war-obsessed Sultan who only finds peace through stories. Another explores a woman effectively imprisoned in a tower. Her sole desire is to learn all that the outside world has to offer. These scenes all have a fairy tale quality to them, as they should, though I think they never hit the heights, either in presentation or narrative, of something like Tarsem Singh’s The Fall.
The trouble is that the story of Alithea and the Djinn isn’t particularly interesting beyond the obvious and a late second act development seems to come out of nowhere and never fully feels believable. And that’s a shame because the entire movie seems predicated on the chemistry the two characters are supposed to have that I just never fully bought.
Additionally, sad to say, Three Thousand Years of Longing has particularly antiquated ideas about what people will find funny or strange and what is or isn’t a peculiar fetish for people. And, most egregiously, despite all of the character’s initial assertions early in the movie, the story seems to make it clear that people cannot be fulfilled or content unless they have romantic love. It’s 2022! It’s belittling to suggest if someone says they are happy alone they’re secretly lying about it, deep in their hearts.
I like George Miller a lot. I’m glad he got to make this kind of clearly personal movie before he returns to the barren wastes with Furiosa. I hope he gets to tell stories about telling stories forever because in general we need more art like that. But sadly Three Thousand Years of Longing wasn’t what I had wished for.