If a genie offered you three wishes, what would you wish for?
You’ve probably had that conversation. Whether you were baked out of your mind, sitting around a campfire, or chatting with a close friend or lover, that question has passed through your mind. You could make that one person fall in love with you. You could become as rich as Croesus. Hell, you could eat as many tacos as you want and never gain weight.
The conversation about wishes is one that matters, one that’s always mattered. That’s because it’s ultimately about stories. As humans, we make sense of the world through narratives. We experience triumphs. Traumas. Occurrences that are likely random yet feel specifically targeted. Those moments morph into a narrative, and wishes are a way to change that narrative. If only she loved me. If only he was out of my life. If only I had that job. If only, if only.
When it comes to wishes, there’s always a catch. Isn’t there? You look at the old story of The Monkey’s Paw and how a father’s grief transforms into horror due to wishes. The assumption exists that when you make a wish, some sort of trickster or malevolent object will twist your desires into something obscene. It’s those assumptions, based on both folklore and personal experience, that make George Miller’s newest film Three Thousand Years of Longing such a fascinating story about stories.
Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) lives in a world of stories. She’s a professor of narratology, an expert on how, where, and why we tell stories. Alithea is good at her job, and she loves it. She’s also content, and while she doesn’t have a child or significant other, she does have a nice townhouse in London and a feeling that the career she’s chosen is the right one for her.
Alithea finds herself in Istanbul* for a conference. As she wanders the city, she discovers a back room in a tucked away shop found in the back alley of a seldom-explored part of the city. It’s almost as if she were drawn there, and it’s almost as if she were fated to pick up a small glass bottle and purchase it on the spot.
After returning to her posh hotel room, Alithea turns her attention to cleaning her new treasure. As she does, the lid pops off. With a marvelous display of smoke and light, the occupant of the bottle is released. He’s a Djinn (Idris Elba) who quickly learns to speak English and can’t hide his curiosity about the modern world. Nevertheless, the Djinn is nothing if not professional, and he gets right down to business.
As you no doubt guessed, the Djinn offers Alithea three wishes, though they come with conditions. She can’t do the old trick of wishing for more wishes. Nor can she wish for immortality as it’s the nature of humans to be mortal. Alithea is no fool, and says to him, “This wishing is a hazardous business.” Before she makes a decision as to the business of wishing, she wants to learn more. How long has the Djinn been trapped? What kinds of adventures has he had? Alithea yearns to be told stories and the Djinn obliges her.
These days, Hollywood is significantly more business than show, and studios are obsessed with what’s going to make them a profit. For most of his career, George Clooney has followed the motto, “One for them, one for me.” He’ll make a financially successful crowdpleaser like Ocean’s Eleven, then make a more personal and idiosyncratic film like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I appreciate filmmakers who do that and who commit to telling a certain kind of story, regardless of its profitability. George Miller seems to have made a similar commitment, at least recently. Most people know him from the perfectly orchestrated bedlam of the Mad Max franchise, and yet Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like it was made with an utter disregard for his fanbase. I admire that.
You can still tell the man who made Mad Max: Fury Road directed this film, with its thoughtful use of color and creative setpieces. When he brings us into stories involving the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) and Zefir (Burcu Golgedar), a young woman who dreams of a lifetime of learning, he carefully creates sets and tones that reflect their individuality while connecting to the main narrative. He’s made an achingly gorgeous film. Even when the pacing starts to sputter in the third act, I never complained too much as there were always more marvels to behold. The imagery on display is amazing, and its power frequently overtakes the screenplay.
This doesn’t mean the screenplay is woefully lacking. Miller has always been someone who deeply cares about how stories are told and his screenplay, co-written with Augusta Gore, is no different. They dive deep into what the stories mean and how they’re told. At times, Miller and Gore go a little too deep, and a running joke about how Alithea is convinced the Djinn is a trickster doesn’t go anywhere or pay off. Along similar lines, the screenplay is extremely, enormously sincere and it takes its subject very seriously. While it certainly didn’t need any MCU-style snark, some strategically placed humor would have helped balance out the self-seriousness. Plus, there are times that the plotting, characterization, and dialogue simply don’t have the same punch as the visuals. That means we have a well-done film as opposed to a classic.
For a movie spanning hundreds of years and concerning numerous tales, everyone else in the cast takes a back seat to Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton. Elba plays the Djinn with a hopeful weariness. He’s an immortal being who longs for freedom and, perhaps, someone to share it with. The problem he’s experienced is that human beings haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. I liked that Tilda Swinton’s Alithea doesn’t desperately miss a former lover or yearn for a child. When she says she’s content, she really does mean it. Sometimes, though, you meet someone and there’s a spark. Swinton is such a skilled actor that you see her intellectually working out the parameters of wishes, her curiosity towards the Djinn, and an attraction that surprises both of them.
While I expect that George Miller would like it if Three Thousand Years of Longing was a hit, I suspect he never wished for that. It feels like the kind of film that was under his skin, one that he needed to make to explore certain moods and concepts. I appreciate it when a filmmaker is fueled by passion, and while this film has its flaws, I appreciate the mere fact of its existence.
*She flies over on the amusingly named Scheherezade Airlines.