There are many tales of Djinn, or genies, who emerge from a lamp or some other vessel to offer the person who has released them three wishes. They are traditionally known for their devious and clever ways, fulfilling only very specific pieces of what is requested and often leaving the wisher much worse off than they were before they had verbalized what they thought they always wanted. Three Thousand Years of Longing flips the power dynamic, with a lonely Djinn eager to be set free faced with a woman who claims not to have any wishes to make.
Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is in Istanbul for an academic conference. Her attention is not entirely on what is being presented because she repeatedly has demonic visions that she presumes are hallucinations. But when a Djinn (Idris Elba) appears in her hotel room, first sized as a giant and speaking an ancient language before he extracts electricity and knowledge from her television to learn English, she cannot with certainty dismiss what she is seeing. Uninterested in making the same mistakes written about in mythology by others who have offered wishes, Alithea refuses to do so, compelling the Djinn to share the incredible stories of his past.
This film’s title hints at its scope, which is conveyed by the Djinn in offering the wisdom he has gained from his multiple incarcerations that have led him to this point. Those tales are considerably grander and more populated than the simple and direct exchange he is having with Alithea in the present in a modern hotel room, but his attitude and his demeanor reveal millennia of life experience. Because he is not human, he cannot fully explain how it is that he navigates the world, but the way that he describes his isolated nature and how no one can truly relate to him is a sentiment that strikes Alithea, who herself has no real point of connection with others.
Based on the short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Three Thousand Years of Longing comes from celebrated Australian director George Miller. The filmmaker’s most recent projects have shown tremendous range and no commitment to similar genres, following up the family-friendly Babe: Pig in the City with the animated sensations Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two before scoring a Best Picture Oscar nomination for the violent, adults-only Mad Max: Fury Road. To compare his latest film to any of those is impossible, and what links it at least to Fury Road is an emphasis on masterful storytelling and on not being limited by traditional movie tropes or a need for classification.
Miller’s two actors are also extraordinary. Swinton, who is no stranger to playing parts like this, fully immerses herself into Alithea, serving as an unusual conduit for the audience to digest and process the unbelievable and inexplicable sight of the Djinn. Her reactions are tempered and analytical, which makes the moments in which she does find herself swayed by his tales all the more poignant and powerful. Elba brings a gentle sensitivity to the Djinn, soft-spoken but deliberate and capable of weaving colorful descriptions of that which he has endured over the course of his captivity and which he is very eager to share with someone who will listen.
There is a good deal of humor to be found throughout Three Thousand Years of Longing, with witty and fantastical elements of what the Djinn narrates as he seeks to appeal to Alithea. It’s hard to top the grandeur of what he retells, and therefore the film is presented with a true challenge to reach a satisfying resolution. The road there, and the dynamic that builds between Alithea and the Djinn, serves as a captivating journey, and its ultimate impact can’t quite match the intrigue presented before the big finish.
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Three Thousand Years of Longing is now playing in theaters.