George Miller, the mastermind behind Mad Max, Happy Feet, and, of course, Babe: Pig in the City, is back to grace the silver screen with his latest ingenious creation, Three Thousand Years of Longing. Starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, MGM is marketing this film head-on as a hyper-stylized Miller adventure, however, the filmmaker himself has teased that this is his most humane and least bombastic work yet. The latter is almost entirely true as most of Three Thousand Years of Longing is centered around the conversations between a djinn and a doctor, both fascinated by the art of storytelling, from inside a single hotel room. This isn’t to say that Miller’s film lacks style or flair for it fully embraces the whimsical nature of it all when visualizing the not-so adventures of Elba’s djinn.
While attending a conference in Turkey, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Swinton) stumbles upon an enchanted bottle that to her surprise has been the prison of a djinn (Elba) for thousands of years. The magical being offers Binnie three wishes in exchange for his freedom. But with her being an academic and less tempted than all of the djinn’s previous masters, she becomes more fascinated with his own personal stories from eternity’s past. From here, Binnie and her new acquaintance dive way back in time and explore the path that led them to meet in her Istanbul hotel.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a fairy tale, more derivative of the popularized story of Aladdin. Miller recycles the base concept of Aladdin in its simplest form: a genie breaks out of a bottle and needs to grant three wishes to be free and its master learns a lot more from what they already had than what the wishes gave them. Miller uses the djinn’s stories as a narrative device to delve deep into the art of storytelling itself, conjuring up fantastical tales over the course of thousands of years. That is the absolute key purpose of Elba’s role, and to subsequently present these stories to the audience as filler for the time between their intellectual conversations about narratives. Like all fables, the djinn’s memories can be interpreted as cautionary tales for the choices that Binnie takes in the present, as she holds the power to wish anything into existence.
The stories that are told are all deeply rooted in history and literature. The settings that the djinn recalls are not just any old locations, but places of historical importance. It is clear that this aspect of the film plays into Miller’s own long desire of visiting such times. Three Thousand Years of Longing picks up in present-day Istanbul, which itself has great historical grandeur as it was once known as Constantinople – European land ruled by the Greeks in what is now present-day Turkey. One of the film’s flashback segments is set in Constantinople, with others focused around well-known figures of the past in varying lavish palaces and such. As the audience is plunged into these locales, the film suffers from an overload of exposition. Miller’s main driving force in relation to the plot is all too obvious and doesn’t make for anything all that interesting. By the end, one questions the true meaning behind everything shown, especially as the script diverts down the path of a romance. The film is simply overstretched, with the London-based ending being the most vivid example of its ultimate meaningless nature.
It goes without saying that Three Thousand Years of Longing is glorious to behold thanks to Miller’s creativity, however, there is a stark contrast between the ravishing set design and cinematography seen in the stories of old compared to the present hotel room scenes, which are rather bland. The fact that most of the talking and storytelling is done from one location, with the characters barely moving, makes it feel staged. Perhaps Three Thousand Years of Longing would make an interesting stage play? Miller is never able to successfully make the overall narrative goal as interesting as its exquisite flashbacks and tangents. Cutting back and forth to the hotel room works as an ideal visual contrast between the past and the present, in theory, though it can often be quite the uncanny downgrade as Miller is seemingly far more interested in the former over the latter.
Despite its many setbacks, Three Thousand Years of Longing can still be quite emotionally gripping. Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba are the true saving graces in this regard, they perform everything to a high standard, even when the screenplay starts to slack. The problem is more related to Miller and his overreliance on exposition, although poor visual effects and the lack of impactful anecdotes – a crucial element to any great fairy tale – can’t also go unaccounted for. Miller’s uniquely stylized visuals are present for a large portion, and will surely be pleasing enough for most of his dedicated fans. Yet, the staleness of pretty much everything else will likely not sit well with wider audiences based on the previous high praise for Mad Max: Fury Road. Following up on such a hit was never going to be easy, but that doesn’t excuse this film’s failings. Here’s to higher hopes for his next project, the Mad Max prequel Furiosa.