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What would you do if you had three wishes? In the context of children’s tales and Disney films, it is an easy question to answer because the stakes are low. The hero with the wishes is sharply drawn, often with a single defining characteristic, so they waste no time in knowing what they want. Three Thousand Years of Longing, the new film from George Miller, complicates this question because the hero with the wishes is an actual adult. Moreover, she is a narratologist, a kind of literary scholar who looks at storytelling across different civilizations to understand their common ground. This film is a rare fairy tale for adults, one where the weary characters are able to conjure fantastical, visually resplendent worlds full of sex, intrigue, and universal desire.
The opening narration begins with a curious gambit. The narratologist, Alithea (Tilda Swinton), says she will tell her story as if it’s a fairy tale because it will be easier for us to believe it. Indeed, her language is an instant retread to the opening lines of fairy tales, using familiar phrases and syntax to disabuse us of modern cynicism. When we meet Alithea, she is at an academic conference in Istanbul, a place where a cityscape looks like it could be from centuries ago. After a lecture, she purchases a small glass bottle from the Grand Bazaar, and something bizarre happens when she tries to clean it in her hotel room. A Djinn (Idris Elba), a larger-than-life creature with pointy ears who tells her he can grant her three wishes, emerges from the bottle. Not just any wishes, he explains. They must be her heart’s desire. That is a big ask, so she bides time through conversation.
Both Alithea and the Djinn are natural storytellers, and Three Thousand Years of Longing consists primarily of flashbacks. The Djinn has spent most of his life confined inside a bottle, and his most important stories are about how he found himself stuck inside there. In one, he inserts himself among familiar figures from the Bible: He was favorite to the Queen of Sheba, at least until King Solomon came calling and seduced her. In another, he serves a young woman who wishes to fall in love with a sultan and have his child. Miller, along with cinematographer John Seale, film these flashbacks with vibrant color and an eye for detail, a callback to classic films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Fall. But since this film is for adults, there are details you will not find in Aladdin, such as violent battle scenes and a prince with a harem of scantily clad women.
It is through Alithea and the Djinn’s conversation that we can accept these tall tales. The stories captivate her, and us by extension, but a crucial detail is how Alithea does not listen idly. She is aware of storytelling’s power, so she asks pointed questions to understand the Djinn’s nature and better grasp what she risks when, finally, she makes a wish. Alithea’s background as a narratologist also gives the film a thrilling intellectual angle, getting us to think about why these stories can tantalize anyone open to them. The film argues we need such fairytales to make sense of the world, despite technological and scientific advancement, because our need for a simpler kind of understandingthem taps into something more primal. Despite all this advancement, as the Djinn ruefully observes, we are only human.
The Djinn is of our world, but like an angel, he is a dutiful observer of human nature. Swinton and Elba do not have chemistry in a traditional sense, a decision that is right for the material. Alithea accepts this supernatural figure in her hotel room because she believes her eyes, but she keeps a cool distance from him, while the Djinn understands the otherworldly effect he has over human companions. If their conversation has an edge of flirtation, it is because the phrase “heart’s desire” is close to admitting love, something that requires mutual trust. They are not plausible as friends or lovers, but as two smart individuals who find relief because, finally, they meet someone who can keep up with them in conversation.
A film like Three Thousand Years of Longing is a tough sell. It is difficult to describe and the feeling it conjures is uncommon to the movies nowadays. Its mere existence is a kind of risk, one that only Miller could indulge, since this film is effectively spending the capital he earned from Mad Max: Fury Road, his last directorial effort. With all that baggage, it is unlikely to be a massive box office hit, and yet like the best stories, it will likely find its eventual audience. It is too captivating and idiosyncratic to be forgotten. Some jaded viewers may think themselves above its abundant charms, which is just as well, since Alithea and the Djinn remind us that being captivated by stories—especially the kind that serve as metaphors for our innermost needs— is a way to preserve our imaginations at their most openhearted and youthful.
Three Thousand Years of Longing opens in area theaters on August 26.