Aladdin for grownups… with Fate cast as both hero and villain.
Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is a present-day narratologist speaking at a scholastic gathering in Istanbul. More comfortable in her books than in real life, her entire existence is challenged by the appearance of The Djinn (Idris Elba), who she unknowingly frees from a decorative bottle. Promised her heart’s desire fulfilled by three wishes granted within his power, Alithea shifts to the defensive even as her curiosity takes hold, academically certain all such stories are morality tales at best and tragedies at worst. Yet The Djinn is both adamant and desperate, confessing what eternal fate awaits him should he fail in his task. Alithea remains unconvinced, so The Djinn begins his tales of longing, misunderstanding, and the worst luck imaginable.
Directed by George Miller from a script co-written with his daughter Augusta Gore based on “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A. S. Byatt, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a compact anthology with a significant wraparound story. Much of the crew used in Mad Max: Fury Road was tapped to put this production together, featuring Middle Eastern locales and lots of sand; Miller seems to have a thing for it. With the exception of perhaps the 1999 film The Mummy, fantasy Arabia hasn’t had the best run in Hollywood in recent years, like the white-cast Prince of Persia or the abysmal Gods of Egypt, but what about a story of desire instead of high adventure? Surely the muses shall smile upon that…
Neither as dreamlike or misbehaving as a Neil Gaiman adaptation, Longing nonetheless embraces fairy tale elements to a Brothers Grimm tee. Miller parallels his details between the anthology and the wraparound with a glance here and a thought there, foreshadowing the core relationship in layers. Swinton and Elba are at the height of their craft, the interplay between their characters appearing effortless. Alithea teeters between fascination and alarm as The Djinn delights in and yet dreads his recollections, but the dynamic changes when his tales are done. It’s a banquet of storytelling, sumptuous and delicious even when slightly bitter.
In an information age purported not to let history repeat itself nor be forgotten, there’s no avoiding the loathsome idea a bottled djinn is beholden to whomever opens the container. Forget the bellybutton-less Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie”; this is indeed a film featuring a magical black man enslaved to an influential white master. Similar to Larry Hagman’s reluctant Major Nelson, Alithea wants no part of it, but Miller’s script emotionally traps her to create drama. Rather than smoothing all of this over and ignoring the obvious, the film shines a purposeful spotlight on the bigger issue with a drop-in scene of sudden bigotry, prompting many to ask: what the hell was the director thinking?
While “the neighbor scene” appears tone-deaf at first, a closer look suggests Miller’s intent is a turning point, an opportunity for spiritual growth. The Djinn has experienced hate in the corporeal world firsthand and has every reason to want to escape it; Alithea shuns life at every turn to avoid ever being harmed by it, choosing to safely ignore rather than risk engagement. For all the opposites these two characters are, they are drawn together in their hope for better: the point of storytelling itself. The follow-up moment where Alithea appears to gloss over obvious bigotry is her seizing the chance to be the better example: “See what I see.” Innocent perhaps, but such is the stuff of “once upon a time.”
In defying a standard three-act structure, the final segment plays out like a series of endings akin to The Return of the King — never knowing if one more scene is coming until it does — but it’s ultimately satisfying. For those interested: yes, a narratologist is happily a real profession… unlike the “symbologist” from The Da Vinci Code.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, brief violence, and three being a magic number.
Four skull recommendation out of four