Three Thousand Years of Longing requires a leap of faith.
In today’s landscape rife with cynicism and irreverence, George Miller’s film asks its audience to put that aside for the sake of a budding romance between two unlikely souls: Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a lonely but content narratologist, and Idris Elba’s Djinn, a wish-granting spirit who Alithea accidentally frees from his centuries-old prison. The Djinn tries to convince Alithea to make three wishes, but she refuses, believing him to be a trickster. To persuade her, the Djinn walks Alithea through his life, three millennia of unfulfilled desires and hopes.
Despite Alithea’s initial skepticism, Three Thousand Years of Longing itself rejects that impulse. Every frame is a full-throated defense of magic and whimsy, unapologetic in the seriousness of its regard. No matter how weird or silly, Miller encourages us to accept what we see. An oversized Djinn laying back and filling every spare inch of Alithea’s hotel room? Sure. A musical wizard seducing the Queen of Sheba with a living musical instrument? Absolutely. (Aamito Lagum, who plays the Queen of Sheba, might be one of the most beautiful people to grace the big screen this year.) A sultan’s concubine slipping and falling in a bath, inadvertently freeing the Djinn? Why not? Anything is possible if you believe. (Even when the visual effects aren’t that great, which could very well be an intentional directorial choice.)
It sounds cheesy, but it helps make Three Thousand Years of Longing such a charming watch. That charm, and the film’s absence of self-effacement or pessimism, eases you in the film’s complex exploration of the nature of desire and love. Each of the Djinn’s vignettes carries hints of melancholy, with him observing how humanity’s hubris undercuts their wishes every time. Even more tragic is that the Djinn is the one telling them. He is trapped in his masters’ self-fulfilling follies without the ability to help them, and the nature of his existence prevents his desires from ever being realized. Maybe desire is a soul-crushing trap, and love is a losing game?
That might be a cynic’s takeaway, but again, Three Thousand Years of Longing doesn’t serve a cynical master. It pushes back on that notion through the Djinn’s relationship with Alithea. Apart from the vignettes, the film is primarily a two-hander showing how they find friendship, comfort, and love through each other’s experiences. As their connection unfolds and blooms, we see a tantalizing possibility that they could find the happiness that has eluded them. Life is never that simple, though; the film acknowledges that reality amidst its dizzying fantasy. Still, it closes out its unique love story with the same heartwarming grace.
Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba’s strong performances add to the film’s fanciful atmosphere. Both actors get to shed the stoicism of their most notable roles for something more open-hearted and vulnerable. Miller’s unintuitive casting of them was inspired, as the change-up favors them both. Swinton can do wise and intelligent in her sleep, but the wonder, bewilderment, and desire that crosses her expression as she listens to the stories deepen the intrigue of her screen presence. Elba plays the Djinn with a straightforward regality and human yearning, making for a fascinating contrast.
Together, Elba and Swinton make for a jarring but inviting pair. They have great chemistry, playful and winking in some moments, sweet and tender in others. They are so compelling and enchanting to watch that it can be frustrating to leave them to explore the Djinn’s past. The stories matter, of course, but any extended time away from the Djinn and Alithea aches a bit. (Swinton and Elba’s scenes, mostly confined to a hotel room, share similarities with Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, starring Emma Thompson.)
Unintended irony aside, Three Thousand Years of Longing earns its right to be unabashedly weird and optimistic about its weirdness. The film is a modern fairytale with a refreshingly mature story that doesn’t sacrifice its wonder and compassion, even against insidious solitude and unfulfilled wishes. It’s a story we could use at the moment or any moment. All George Miller asks for in return is our belief in an Idris Elba-shaped djinn living in a jar. It’s more than a fair trade.