THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING: 3 STARS. “all allegory, too little passion.”
George Miller may be best known as a director of wild action movies, but at the heart of all his films, whether it is the outback opera of his “Mad Max” series, or the gentle inspiration of “Babe: Pig in the City,” or the fantasy of “The Witches of Eastwick,” is masterful storytelling.
His latest movie, “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, celebrates the art of storytelling with a tale about how a well told story can bring people together.
Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a lonely professor of narratology. “I am a solitary creature by nature,” she says. “I have no children, or siblings, nor parents. I did once have a husband.” Her work has left her wondering about the importance of mythology in the age of technology. “Sooner or later,” she says, “our creation stories are replaced by science.”
Her compartmentalized and orderly life is turned upside down when she buys a memento at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. “Whatever it is,” she says of her purchase, a small decorative glass bottle shaped like a Genie’s lamp, “I’m sure it has an interesting story.”
Make that stories. Within are a multitude of stories. And a Genie.
When Alithea opens the bottle, she unleashes a cloud of iridescent smoke. The Djinn (Elba), as the magical character imprisoned by King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) inside the bottle for three thousand years because he “cried out my heart’s desire,” appears. His only path to true freedom comes with granting Alithea’s wishes based on her three deepest yearnings.
Alithea’s study of ancient myths has left her wary of accepting the Djinn’s offer. “I cannot for the life of me, summon up one eligible wish, let alone three,” she says.
Nonetheless, the Djinn regales her with stories from his life, Scheherazade style, in an attempt to lure her into making a wish.
Based on the short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A.S. Byatt, and co-written for the screen by Miller, “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” has much of the director’s visual flair, and rock-solid performances from Swinton and Elba, but this fairy tale about the importance of stories and romance doesn’t contain the magic promised by its premise.
There is sentimentalism to burn in the Djinn’s retelling of the great loves of his life and how his “fondness for the conversation with women” has kept him bottled up, literally, for millennia, but this often feels like an academic exercise. His stories reveal an appealing vulnerability in the mysterious creature’s personality, but instead of being swept away by the spectacle of the storytelling into worlds of romance, we’re left waiting for the emotional impact which is delayed and, even then, muted. It’s all allegory with not enough passion.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” has undeniably cool moments, most likely conjured up in Miller’s fevered imagination. King Solomon’s magical, self-playing stringed instrument is wondrous, and the period details contained in the flashback from the Djinn’s life are beautifully rendered, despite some dodgy CGI. But, unlike the great stories it celebrates, the movie doesn’t have the kind of tension between the leads necessary to create a compelling narrative.