The highest compliment I can think to pay Three Thousand Years of Longing, the latest film by Mad Max: Fury Road and Babe: Pig in the City director George Miller, is that every one of those three thousand years is deeply felt by the spectator over the film’s sub-2-hour course. How time appears to stand still, during this arch and whimsical fable! How very like being contained in a tiny bottle at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of years, just like the genie played by Idris Elba in the film, is the experience of watching this syrupy magical-realist drivel.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is essentially a type of portmanteau film, staging a succession of stories loosely derived from the tradition of One Thousand and One Nights, as told in a present-day narrative framework in which a spinsterish British professor played by Tilda Swinton awakens a djinn from inside an antique bottle. The djinn (Idris Elba, with a CGI lower half not unlike the one he had in Cats, which is not a reference point any reviewer would willingly dig up) then recounts to this uptight dame the history of his tri-millennial imprisonment within the phial with a series of lavishly-staged flashbacks to ancient Arabia making up the bulk of the plot. Over the course of this tale, Alithea Binnie (for such is the name of the professor played by Swinton, please do not question it) begins to fall for the djinn.
The contemporary section of the movie is filmed in dismayingly lurid primary colors, with an equally upsetting hyper-real cinematography whose brutally ugly crispness of image at least has the effect of making the historical bits look fancier. Swinton, performing the role of “Alithea Binnie” with a vaguely regional accent, never quite connects with either her character or her co-star—in particular, she plays the character as too self-contained, so that Alithea’s later melting, and her romance with the djinn, appear to spring from nowhere. Meanwhile, Elba is tasked with an even more exacting role: his elven-eared genie must tell the whole story in flashback, conjure a sense of otherworldly wonder with his magic powers, and enter into a relationship with the main character despite their lack of alchemy. Truth be told, George Miller works overtime to assist his protagonists in this by foisting dazzling acts of prestidigitation upon them, filmed in eye-watering CGI, and delving into the djinn’s history with richly composed scenes set in Arabic courts of yesteryear that would make Edward Said turn over in his grave. But in spite of these efforts, despite the surfeit of magically liquefying solids, of brightly colored veils and opulently designed vignettes featuring a phalanx of beautiful, golden-skinned princesses and courtiers, something about the film never takes off.
In part, that’s due to the sheer ridiculousness of the project. Three Thousand Years of Longing wears its eccentricity extremely self-consciously, leaning into its own sincerity and positively daring viewers to have the temerity to laugh at it. Reader, I accepted that challenge. The film is not entirely devoid of humor, but it is oddly witless, with a stuffy quality that makes all of its attempts at a kind of hallowed, mystical storytelling seem preposterous. Over the course of his recollections the djinn falls in love with a various selection of gorgeous princesses, and has the misfortune to be repeatedly imprisoned in his bottle, raising the question of whether Alithea will set him free with her wishes: this would all be perfectly acceptable were it not for the clanging self-regard of Miller’s own storytelling, and for the lack of rhythm, of excitement or actual wonder to replace the confected wonder of the movie’s woozy special effects and Orientalism.
“The film is not entirely devoid of humor, but it is oddly witless, with a stuffy quality that makes all of its attempts at a kind of hallowed, mystical storytelling seem preposterous.”
Not everything is disastrous here: for every four or five fist-in-mouth moments there comes a beautifully composed scene—after all, Miller is no slouch in the visual department—but these moments are finally too few and cannot salvage the overall object. And the film’s qualities are almost completely tanked by so many nightmarish contrivances—such as a scene in which Pr. Binnie, all loved up with her djinn of color, confronts her racist elderly Brexit-minded neighbors; or a conclusion in which Binnie and the djinn (Djinnie?) walk off into a nightmarishly velvety sunset; or a bizarre scenario in which a harem of obese courtesans is apparently intended to play on the audience’s disgust for differently-sized women.
Three Thousand Years of Longing’s manufactured whimsy, its bleakly innocent vision of a world in which Stories Matter Because They Tell Us About Humanity’s Deepest Secrets, or some such mealy-mouthed guff, have the capacity to set one’s teeth on edge. It may be that other viewers will have the capacity to surrender more completely to this film’s woo-woo miracles, but toward the half-hour mark this reviewer was of a mind to shut the djinn up in a flask for another sweet three thousand.