In one of the first scenes of Three Thousand Years of Longing, narratologist and protagonist Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) describes the lost art of storytelling. With so many phemonena in the world unexplained to ancient people, stories helped make sense of the chaotic and unknowable. Stories were core to human existence and belief. But times change; knowledge compounded. Science replaced the stories.
For the next hour and a half, George Miller considers the ways that stories are still useful. They can help us understand things that science hasn’t and can never explain — matters of the heart and soul. Love, beauty, grief. The things that make us human and connect us to each other.
Alithea — who has been hallucinating mythical creatures — purchases a trinket at a tourist shop, and when she gets back to her hotel room, she rubs it. A Djinn (Idris Elba) pops out and offers her three wishes. But Alithea is a narratologist, meaning she knows and understands stories from across generations and cultures. She knows, for example, that wishes inevitably backfire on the protagonist. Alithea decides that the only logical solution is to not make any wishes at all. But the Djinn is bound to be her servant until the third wish is made; he is not free until she makes her wish. Thus begins a standoff and a battle of wills.
They kill the time by telling each other stories of their lives. So, in case it wasn’t obvious from the title and the fact that this involves a genie in a bottle, this is also a riff on One Thousand and One Nights. The rest of the movie plays out alternating between vignettes about the pasts of Alithea and the Djinn with segments in the present showing their growing appreciation and understanding of each other.
It’s a thoughtful and thematically expansive story. It touches on all sorts of big ideas. For one, it’s a metafictional work on the nature and power of narrative. It is also a romantic story, a heightened version of the way lovers can only come to know each other deeply through little slices of each other’s history accumulated over time.
It is also a reckoning of isolation — and, if read allegorically, of the social impact of COVID-19. Alithea spends most of her time alone, hardened to loneliness and desensitized to existential emptiness. She’s depressed and scared to leave her cozy home. When she’s finally face to face with someone, she doesn’t quite remember how to act. I definitely have been feeling those emotions as lockdown restrictions become a thing of the past.
Swinton and Elba are both terrific, and they have excellent chemistry together. They make an odd couple, but as the film ignites the romantic sparks between them, their connection is extremely touching. In a just world, Swinton would be a dark horse awards season candidate: She reins in an inherently over-the-top concept and straddles a line between delusion and intimacy.
The real star, though, is Miller’s groundbreaking filmmaking with John Seale at the helm as cinematographer. The film’s look is radically artificial and digital. The visual sheen is impossibly clean and airtight. The Djinn’s magic effects are bold and startling, with Crayola saturation on the CGI. The interior whites of Alithea’s hotel room, meanwhile, are inhumanly immaculate, a reflection of the gaping void in her life. It never stops looking surprising.
The digital effects might remind viewers of movies and shows that look “cheap” or “fake,” but Miller applies them with artistry and cleverness (though unflinching artifice): For example, a hazily distorted composition of Alithea and the Djinn entwined recalls the shape of the lamp the Djinn had been trapped in.
The ending is a slight letdown; it’s clear that Miller didn’t know exactly where to take a story so clearly built around the concept of waiting. In particular, I think Miller gets a bit too cute about the way he toys with the viewer on whether the Djinn and his actions are a vision only in Alithea’s head or something corporeal and visible to other people. A few scenes toward the end suggest one end of this spectrum, then flip-flop to the other in a very coy way.
But it is, overall, a moving and thought-provoking film. It’s small and idiosyncratic in some ways; mythically large in others. And I appreciate the film’s underlying optimism: Although some of its stories are unhappy, the vision of humanity they add up to is one where connection between souls is restorative and creative and can help us understand the inexplicable.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film