There isn’t much of a plot in Three Thousand Years of Longing, the new film from writer/director George Miller. The majority of the film takes place in a single hotel room in Istanbul over the course of one day. But plot isn’t the point here. This is a story about stories, something that’s emphasized right from the studio logo before the film in an extended intro that reminds us that MGM’s motto is “Ars Gratia Artis”: Art For Art’s Sake.
Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is a narratologist. She studies the nature of stories and how humanity uses them to explain and perceive the world. While at a conference in Istanbul, she picks up a glass bottle in a bazaar that contains a trapped djinn (Idris Elba). In the process of encouraging Alithea to make the three wishes needed to free him, the Djinn tells her of his history, his experience with love, and how he became trapped in her bottle.
The bulk of the film consists of the Djinn’s stories, extended flashbacks that each form a narrative of their own within the broader scope of the main story. Within those stories also exist other stories, and those stories weave into and out of each other, each one expanding the context and understanding of the framework of the film. It’s a subtle form of narrative hypnotism, and like Alithea herself, it’s very easy to get drawn into a story that moves inward instead of outward.
Aside from the film’s final act, which takes place after Alithea has left Istanbul, the film is content to quietly spin in place, a whirling dervish in larghetto. Its movement here explores the space of its characters rather than act as a chariot to usher them from plot point to plot point. The film is actually less interesting in the times and places before and after Alithea’s hotel room. When the plot does move in the more traditional way that we expect from film, it seems less vital and less important.
That’s because the point here isn’t to tell a story as much as it is to revel in the art of storytelling itself. Alithea’s initial approach to the Djinn and his stories comes from one of intellectual curiosity, of wanting to discover a new source of narrative. But as the film goes on and the Djinn’s stories begin to dance between themselves, Alithea’s heart and soul gets drawn into his experiences and his passions. Like her, we slowly feel ourselves being drawn into the Djinn’s tales.
The tales themselves are each a sumptuous meal in and of themselves. Miller has let his imagination play differently on each canvas, maintaining a similar aesthetic and vibe but remixing it differently each time. The Djinn’s first story focuses on his time with the Queen of Sheba, with a strong focus on bold, warm, rich colors and a mystical, mythical ambiance. His second story is one of intrigue and even flirts with horror as Miller employs a dreamlike camera to simulate the Djinn’s experience. The third story takes place largely in a single room, much like the film’s framework narrative, allowing Miller to creatively manage space and focus squarely on the Djinn’s relationship with his master. The Djinn’s narrative canvas is also bound by a quietly powerful and moving soundtrack by Junkie XL, who’s versatility in scoring continues to grow.
Much of the film’s power comes from Idris Elba’s narration. The Djinn is made of subtle fire, and his heart burns as much as any human’s. We feel his longing, his desperation, his love, and his loss. Elba’s rich baritone voice is like silk, wrapping around us in a soft, sensual cloak. It’s very easy to get swept up into his tales, and even easier to forget about how his stories might be tainted by his own memory and internal biases. Multiple times, the extremely genre-savvy Alithea accuses of him possibly being a trickster, and while the Djinn assures her he is not, it’s impossible to deny that there may be some truth to Alithea’s viewpoint. After all, his greatest trick may have been to allow her (and the audience) to not be drawn into his stories but to eventually give ourselves over to them.
If the Djinn is fire, than Alithea is earth. Practical and analytical to a fault, Alithea revels in her solitude and grounded approach to the world and its stories. Tilda Swinton is perhaps the best person to portray Alithea’s journey from skeptic to ardent. Swinton puts her entire self into every role she does, and here her unique appearance and aura serves as a kind of coalesced, physical humanity in sharp contrast to the Djinn’s romantic, otherworldly energy. Swinton portrays Alithea’s evolution with subtle but striking grace.
The relationship between her and the Djinn isn’t totally antagonistic to start, but Alithea has read too many stories to trust his intentions. She even tells the Djinn that every story about a wish being granted serves as a cautionary tale, and she tests him by making three very mundane wishes that she’s certain can’t be twisted. But the Djinn constantly reminds her that he can only grant a heart’s truest desire, and it’s only through the exploration of his own past and his own experience with his own desire that he can eventually coax that out of her. His stories are metaphors for our own needs, wants, and appetites.
As beautiful as the Djinn’s stories are, the film falters and stumbles outside of them. When the entire world is reduced to Alithea’s hotel room and the individuals inside of it, the film shines and sings. Outside of that, the film feels almost inert. The closer it hews to a traditional narrative, the less magical the whole thing feels. While Alithea does eventually make her three wishes, it almost feels like it might have been better if we had not seen them. If it had been left more to the imagination, reflecting the ending back onto the audience to continue the story in our own unique ways. That would have probably hewed closer to the film’s thesis of story as experience. Instead, we’re treated to a final act that feels like a long, unfortunate anti-climax. Despite the excellent chemistry between the leads, it’s a slowly spinning whirlpool that slowly erases the color and wonder of the film’s heart. To be fair, Miller does eventually stick the landing, so it’s not all for naught.
Three Thousand Years of Longing represents a specific kind of metatexutalism. It’s not one of breaking the fourth wall or self-aware satire. Instead, it’s a respectful and solemn exploration of what stories mean our experience of the world. Stories within stories within stories to give the universe life. When it focuses on this aspect of itself, the film is truly beautiful and mesmerizing, less so when it tries to marry a conventional narrative to it. A wish might still be a cautionary tale, but it’s a great tale to be a part of regardless.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B