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Three Thousand Years of Longing

Released 2022. Director: George Miller

IF YOU COULD MAKE THREE WISHES, WHAT WOULD THEY BE? Three Thousand Years of Longing tells the story of a woman who finds a djinn and is customarily granted three wishes. It’s a magical, enthralling, ultimately moving tale of mysticism, solitude and desire set in ancient times in some faraway land as well as present-day London.

Tilda Swinton’s character is named Alithea Binnie, a literary scholar (she introduces herself as a narratologist) who unwittingly unleashes a djinn from a decorative glass bottle she purchased at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. The djinn, in the form of Idris Elba, is ready to grant Alithea her wishes but the thoughtful and cautious academic, though drawn to the supernatural being, is nonetheless wary of the temptation. She’s too aware that a lot of the time wishes don’t turn out the way you’d envisioned.

Perhaps more importantly, Alithea is an independent woman absolutely contented with her life. She doesn’t need to toss a coin in the well. So instead, Alithea asks the djinn to tell her how he became trapped in the bottle.

Based on a short story 'The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye' by A.S. Byatt, the screenplay adapted by director George Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore deftly feeds on the curiosity of the narratologist captivated by storytelling and the deep reservoir of tales from an eternal being to give an endless stream of yarn dipped in the colours of twisted romance and fantasy.

Reaching back millennia to the time of the Queen of Sheba, the djinn describes how he cautions the most beautiful woman against the advances of King Solomon to no avail. Out of jealousy, Solomon traps the djinn in a brass bottle and drops it in the bottom of the sea. When the bottle eventually surfaces over two thousand years later, fate puts it in the hands of a slave girl named Gulten who wishes for Prince Mustafa to fall in love with her. Palace intrigue leads to a tragic end for the lovers and the djinn is left to wander for hundreds of years until he comes upon two boys who are heirs to the Ottoman Empire. Murad will grow up to be a warrior, whilst Ibrahim will spend his days fetishizing on voluptuous women, one of whom finds the hidden bottle and casts the djinn into another dark period of confinement. A very long time passes and the bottle finds its way to Zefir, a young wife with a diligent mind whose wish is to acquire knowledge but is ultimately overwhelmed by her unhappiness and makes a fatal wish at the wrong time. As a consequence of his love for Zefir, the djinn finds himself doomed into oblivion once again until Alithea picks up the ornate glass bottle with a spiral pattern, a great many, many years later.

Combining the ethereal and the human, Idris Elba brings masculinity and enigma to an ageless being longing for freedom. Tilda Swinton is the epitome of rationality, precise in her choice of words, who eventually acknowledges her emotional needs that she has so neatly filed away beneath scholarly pursuits.

George Miller, whose last movie was the technically dazzling Mad Max: Fury Road, creates arresting visuals with help from cinematographer John Seale, blending the metaphysical with the everyday. The deep inky hues that saturate the period scenes set a contrasting symmetry to the brightness of the present-day. His characters, from the fluent leads to the silent roles employed by the many characters in the stories within a story, are vivid and dramatically drawn. There’s an overall other-worldliness throughout that evokes the classic 'One Thousand and One Nights', yet still recognizably earthy.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is a magnificently told story about storytelling itself. An authority in this field, Alithea is attending a conference on the art of narrative, specifically the evolution of the concept of gods and heroes, when she encounters a character she’s only read about in timeworn mythology. Her expertise in history and literature informs her interpretation of the djinn’s strange and personal recollections.

But of course, it’s the djinn’s eloquent and compelling skills as a storyteller which she finds seductive and beguiling. Hearing the djinn granting Zefir her wish for knowledge nudges Alithea to make her first wish, for a taste of love that transcends ages, the meeting of two solitudes. Miller weaves a thread of curiosity through the narrative, expertly tantalising us from one turn of event to the next.

What really lifts this movie in the end is Alithea's unexpected, liberating, final wish. A fascinating chronology woven by hopes, desires and disillusionments reaches a touching climax that examines the nature of love as an obligation and a gift, something precious that retains its meaning not in possessing but letting go.

An attentive audience may notice that besides the title, the number 3 appears everywhere like a charm. The djinn tells Alithea how he’s been imprisoned three times, her hotel room number is 333, her house number is 3, and of course, three wishes. So I thought I might leave you with these three words: Go Watch It.


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