Three Thousand Years of Longing — Grasping at What We Can

Image retrieved from TMDb

George Miller has had an eclectic career as a director, with his credits including the Mad Max films (including 2015’s Fury Road, one of the best modern action movies), Babe: Pig in the City, and two Happy Feet installments. Miller’s brought his own unique touch to each of these films, but perhaps his most ambitious is his latest — a fantasy epic titled, Three Thousand Years of Longing, based off A.S. Byatt’s short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”.

The film follows Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a narratologist who mostly travels around the world giving lectures on myths and stories, and how they apply in a modern world full of scientific answers. Similar to George Clooney in Up in the Air, she flies all over the world and doesn’t feel the need for companionship to help give her life meaning. But at the same time, the subject of her lectures boils down to how myths don’t provide the same meaning to humanity as they did in the past, because we don’t need them to explain highly complex phenomena, like the sun rising and setting. This conjures a subconscious longing for Alithea, which she chooses not to access within herself. 

That is, until she releases a Djinn (Idris Elba) from its bottle. Being familiar with the stories that Djinns traditionally appear in, Alithea isn’t too scared or overwhelmed by this encounter, and as the Djinn implores her to make her three wishes to set him free forever, she learns of the longing that the Djinn has been doing… for the last three thousand years. The Djinn launches into the story of his life, and a large chunk of the movie turns into narration from Elba, describing all of the different people he’s been in service to over his lifetime (and there aren’t many better choices to narrate a movie than Elba).

Even though the main narrative is mostly set in the Istanbul hotel room where Alithea is staying for her latest speaking engagement, Miller and the Djinn take us to different times and places in the last three millennia. We see Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the palace of Suleiman the Magnificent, and Zefir from 19th Century Turkey. Each of these extended, in-depth pieces of backstory are compelling in their own right, as the Djinn appears and offers wishes to each of the subjects. 

As Alithea is apt to point out, though, most stories about wishes are cautionary tales, and each of the stories cautions against certain desires — surface-level infatuation, solely seeking physical pleasure or knowledge, and blind ambition are just some of the ideas tackled. As we’re taken through each story, the Djinn’s tone becomes more meditative and melancholy, as the stories become more and forlorn. The Djinn has spent so much time longing for connection, only to find it just out of his reach, or for it to be ripped away as soon as it’s given to him. Not even the lush and extravagant sets can bring up the mournful mood (though on a pure production sense, Miller went all out yet again, albeit in a completely different, yet not any worse, way than in Fury Road).

The Djinn’s stories have a profound effect on Alithea, with the more details that he provides, and there are some beautiful, somewhat abstract images that evoke the metaphysical and esoteric feeling of deep loneliness. Tom Holkenborg’s wistful score contributes heavily to this feeling. And in a way, Three Thousand Years is of a piece with the likes of Everything Everywhere All At Once or Bo Burnham’s Inside. Though Miller is the only non-millennial to tackle the subject, towards the end of the second act and into the third, Three Thousand Years wrestles with all of the information that’s constantly thrown at us, and it asks some of the same questions that the aforementioned films do: when we know so much, what actually matters anymore? How can we make meaning when everything seems meaningless?

This film’s answers might seem saccharine or clichéd, but they aren’t any less earnest. I’m all for a director taking a huge, earnest swing, and that’s what Miller is doing in Three Thousand Years of Longing. Since its final act could have stood to take some more time and be more deliberate with its pacing, and since there is some (albeit well-intentioned) social commentary that’s clunkily added in towards the end, this maybe isn’t one of the best movies of the year; but with its heart on its sleeve, it’s definitely one of the most emotionally resonant. Swinton and Elba are unsurprisingly great, and Three Thousand Years of Longing joins what is becoming a chorus of movies singing  the necessity of holding onto each other as everything else slowly slips from our grasp. 

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