Stories of what can go wrong when a human meets a Djinn are a constant cautionary tale. “Be careful what you wish for” is a theme as old as time, growing out of everything from monkey’s paws to oil lamps hidden in treasure troves. George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing could have taken these routes, but that’s not really what interested the guy about this story. What could have been a run-of-the-mill fantasy story is, instead, an achingly romantic story about the importance of stories. As close to an anthology film as he’ll likely ever make, his two actors weave in and out of one another’s emotions by relating in vignette-form how they arrived in a hotel room in Istanbul, clad in expensive hotel bathrobes and attempting to hold back, or grant, their heart’s desires.
Dr. Alithea Binnie (because of course Tilda Swinton is playing a character with such a perfect name) is a careful, deeply reserved academic. A narratologist by trade (i.e. someone that studies stories as a professional pursuit), she breaks up her isolation with trips to various countries where she lectures on how humanity has used stories throughout its history. After purchasing an interesting, peculiarly-shaped glass bottle at an emporium, she breaks it open to release a Djinn (Idris Elba), who offers to grant her three wishes of her deepest heart’s desires. Alithea has been experiencing an outpouring of imaginative episodes lately, so she at first doubts his existence. When she comes to understand what she’s dealing with it becomes even more complicated, as the narratologist knows all the tales of Djinn granting wishes and how they usually turn out.
This may sound a lot like the beginning of a more adult version of Aladdin, but what follows is more of a classically romantic tale of two souls that are in a constant state of longing. The Djinn is open about his emotional state, using his stories to describe how long he has spent in isolation and how poorly the granting of wishes has gone for him in previous encounters. Alithea, on the other hand, lives what she believes is a life of barely emotional contentment. Her husband left her, the neighbors only take interest out of morbid curiosity, and she has convinced herself that she is happy in this isolated existence. Two souls rarely feel more destined to meet, but the tender spark between Swinton and Elba does a lot of heavy lifting in a film so dedicated to the idea of repressed longing.
George Miller, known for such films as Mad Max: Fury Road and Babe: Pig in the City, is one of the more eclectic filmmakers of the last fifty years. His scattershot approach to his output rivals that of Kubrick in terms of genre exercises, but he rarely gets the same level of recognition. Now, for his tenth narrative feature, he’s delivered a gorgeous masterpiece of emotional storytelling that could stand up with some of the more noted metatextual works in recent cinema. Fantasy and drama collide as he offers imagery and behaviors that feel so classic that they could be timeless, yet so modern that they might never have been dreamt before. Miller has always used the fantastical to tell stories, from that of a talking pig or dancing penguin to a cop with PTSD hunting for redemption in the burning wastelands of post-apocalyptic Australia. Three Thousand Years of Longing once again does more than what the director promises on the surface, this time delivering a loving embrace in the form of two people telling each other stories. It has more in common with Niel Gaiman’s The Sandman than any other fantastical tale, but the emotional arcs and psychedelic images feel in line with the director’s previous dramatic efforts.
All of this may sound like it is a slow, heartfelt drama that eschews any of the visual flairs that could come with the tale of a Djinn and its human. Leave those fears at home because Miller delivers in spades, weaving together bright colors and insane magical visuals to give the full scope and power of mythical kingdoms lost to anything but religious text. Spun gold, blown glass, and daring battle sequences are highlighted by mythical beings standing in the presence of King Solomon or images of a Sultan’s son riding a horse with a rainbow mane. These images are presented without exposition, merely offered as a part of the world you can either get on board with or ignore at your leisure. All of it comes together to paint a world that is both ours and yet separate, much as we often need to be reminded that the world belongs to more than just those we know in our day-to-day lives. The stories and narratives of others matter, and we are given that from the word “go.”
It’s been a joy to watch composer Tom Holkenborg grow from “Junkie XL” into a brilliant artist, and his work here is some of the best of his career. The man came to George Miller’s attention and was hired to write the score for Mad Max: Fury Road (which feels co-written by a rather heaping handful of cocaine), one of the better action scores in recent memory, and the director brought him along to continue the working relationship. The longing portrayed in the film is bolstered by Holkenborg’s score, which feels at all times as though staring at someone you love with such a desire for their closeness that a heart might break in two. More haunting than exciting, it’s a lovely series of pieces that feel part of their characters. Music is often the part of a film that lasts the longers, the sticky piece that doesn’t leave your head, and this beauty will be a score I remember long after many others I’ll forget from 2022.
This probably won’t go down as Miller’s best work, and indeed it’s being given a shrug by many viewers and critics, I urge you to give Three Thousand Years of Longing a chance. While it isn’t as openly exciting and has no real gimmick to latch onto, the point of the entire exercise is to revel in the romantic art of telling stories. These moments are who we are, and often what we forget about each other, leaving me to wonder if George Miller really does understand more about humanity than perhaps most others. Take a shot at one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in quite some time and know that it’ll be one of the most lovely experiences you can have on the silver screen this year.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is currently in theatres.