When I was sitting in the theater watching Three Thousand Years of Longing, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that this was a story that didn’t belong on film. Yes, the visual language and artistry of George Miller is apparent and the man is supremely talented when it comes to creating films, but be that as it may, Three Thousand Years of Longing managed to underwhelm me.
I think I may have entered the movie with inaccurate preconceptions though. Unlike his last film, Mad Max: Fury Road, which was all about spectacle and in-your-face adrenaline with a massive world, Three Thousand Years of Longing is the exact opposite. It’s slow, contemplative, and spends most of its runtime in a small hotel room. The spectacle is in incredibly small doses and this is a film that’s more focused on telling a myriad of stories with a variety of themes and artistry. It just so happens to have one of the most unimaginative framing devices I’ve seen and by the end you feel more drained and bored than wooed and wowed.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
Director: George Miller
Release Date: August 26, 2022 (Theatrical)
The story revolves around a literature scholar named Alithea (Tilda Swinton), who is fairly dispassionate about most things in life. She prefers to keep to herself and enjoy a good story than interact with others, especially since she’s prone to hallucinations. On a trip to Istanbul however, she purchases a bottle that has an imprisoned djinn (Idris Elba) within it, who promises three wishes. Naturally skeptical of this whole thing, Alithea immediately begins to question the djinn, the nature of the wishes, and what past owners have wished for, resulting in the djinn recanting his three thousand years of imprisonment and the people that he’s encountered/served.
The meat of the plot centers around the vignettes narrated by Elba. These are where Miller’s gorgeous visuals come out as we see mythological creatures mixed with fantastical elements from Arabic culture as Elba describe the lives of his previous masters. These sequences offer up an air of otherworldliness that goes just beyond the djinn’s magical abilities. The djinn functions mostly as a side character in these stories, except for the final one, allowing us to see how humans come to terms with the ability to grant whatever their heart desires. There are four of these little stories that mostly end in tragedy, but serve some moral about love, power, and greed and can be downright breathtaking at times.
These sequences stand in direct contrast to the modern-day scenes where Elba and Swinton are just sitting around in a hotel room talking to each other. There are hardly any magical elements in play and the soundtrack is, for the most part, non-existent. It comes across less like we’re watching a movie and more like we’re watching a one-act play done in a black box theatre with barely any props. These moments aren’t intimate in a romantic sense, but rather intimate in a confining sense. There’s a much larger world out there, and we see glimpses of it through the djinn, but we’re not able to see it because we have to watch Tilda Swinton bicker with Idris Elba. And when we do, we almost regret that we asked.
Tilda Swinton acts as you would expect of her. She’s proper, grounded, and tends to get some laughs only from how rigid she is. To see her star as the leading lady in a romance feels weird since she’s not connecting with the arc of the film. In theory, she should be falling more in love with the djinn while learning about his suffering, but Swinton never conveys that desire until she’s forced to do so, almost like she’s flipping a switch. In short, It’s like most of her performances, while the bulk of the narrative falls under Idris Elba. He does a great job narrating the vignettes as well as portraying this otherworldly and all-powerful, but noble and kind spirit. While the two don’t have much chemistry, Elba alone is enough for you to get worked up over. He just has a commanding presence on the screen and seeing him shirtless for basically the entire runtime is perfect for a romance movie. After all, there’s a reason he was the sexiest man alive in 2018.
The film doesn’t really know what to do with itself outside of the djinn’s story since most of the modern-day events revolve around Alithea and her budding romance with the djinn. Once the djinn’s stories conclude, the rest of the plot has him and Alithea return to London where the film spins its wheels searching for a purpose. We see Alithea go back to her normal life and the djinn learning more about the modern world. Sometimes we get colorful visual sequences depicting the djinn’s magical powers, but those moments are immediately overshadowed by Alithea getting into an argument with her Brexit granny neighbors that adds nothing to the plot other than that her life isn’t a fairytale and the reality is that the world has lost its sense of wonder and magic… I think.
It leads to Three Thousand Years of Longing having no real direction, realizing that now that we’ve caught up on the djinn’s three thousand years of imprisonment, like him, we don’t know what to do next. Most of the film doesn’t know what to do with itself outside of the hotel scenes. The beginning of the film teases that Alithea sees these mythological creatures and no one else can, which adds an interesting dynamic to her time with the djinn, but it’s never followed up on and just raises more questions the more the movie progresses. The film makes it a point of introducing that bit about her, yet it never comes back in any meaningful way. Then the movie has several different scenes that could have served as the film’s ending but didn’t know when it would be best to properly end things.
Which is a shame, because there is so much meaning and passion behind those ancient sequences, but they only account for 40% of the film. The rest are all dry discussions that can be interesting at times, but ultimately are as interesting as reading a mythology textbook. With that in mind, I really can’t say I enjoyed Three Thousand Years of Longing as most of its content just bored me and left me wanting more. It’s like being able to eat a slice of a delicious cake, but after a few bites, you need to eat a handful of saltines. You’re longing for the delicious parts that are so satisfying to eat, but instead, you’re forced to consume something bland and basic.
I would be interested in seeing what this would be like if it was just a one-act play though. The film only lasts 90 minutes, so there is a way to take what works here and turn it into something magical and intimate for a live audience. Because as is, Three Thousand Years of Longing just isn’t clicking with people as a movie. It’s bombing at the box office and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s impossible to properly sell a movie like this because while the concepts are pretty easy to grasp, the two different halves just tonally and visually don’t mix. When you have Idris Elba narrating beautiful and tender reflections on mortality and human nature, immediately shifting to Tilda Swinton being snarky and matter-of-factly describing her life, you’re just left wanting more in a lifeless depiction of London.
For a movie all about the innate desires of humans, it’s fitting that I would be left wanting more from Three Thousand Years of Longing.