7 Sep 2022

Movie review - Three Thousand Years of Longing

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 7 September 2022

Actors Idris Alba and Tilda Swinton and director George Miller are a dream team in this fantastical banquet.

Australian filmmaker George Miller has made a career disguising some sophisticated story-telling behind singing pigs in Babe, dancing penguins in Happy Feet, and most famously in the petrol-head extravagances of Mad Max.

The fable comes undisguised in his latest - Three Thousand Years of Longing.

We met Alithia - Tilda Swinton dialling back her usual exotic mystery a bit to play a buttoned-up academic. Alithia's field is "narrative" - why do we tell stories, what are they for?

And one day she finds herself strolling through the home of great stories... Istanbul.

In the back of a dusty little shop, Alithia finds a mysterious, misshapen bottle. She takes it home and gives it a good clean.

To the surprise of anyone who hasn't seen the poster for Three Thousand Years of Longing, polishing the bottle produces a gigantic genie, or djinn.

I'm more surprised it's taken so long to put Tilda Swinton together with the equally charismatic Idris Elba in a movie, though the mix might be too rich for many directors.

Not George Miller, though. He sets up the premise of the story immediately.

Three wishes. Though in fact we've already been softened up to expect them.

The number 3 crops up throughout the film - hotel rooms, home addresses, and of course in three thousand years of fables where a djinn offer three wishes - and it usually turns out badly.

But Alithia already knows this. She's spent her entire life studying stories like Three Thousand Years of Longing. She knows all the tricks - and the fact that there usually are tricks.

The djinn will have to be clever if he wants Alithia to make her wishes and free him from imprisonment.

So he tells her his story... or rather, stories. Yes, there are three of these, starting with his first love, the Queen of Sheba, and how he was first trapped in a bottle by King Solomon.

Against her will, Alithia finds herself drawn into the djinn's stories about his three imprisonments - each one caused, one way or another, by love.

Initially, she tries an easy way to release the djinn - from the bottle and her life. Can't she simply wish for three, quick, unimportant requests?

But stories don't work like this. They've got to be rooted in a Heart's Desire, and Alithia doesn't seem to have one.

She lives a small, solitary life with a reasonably satisfying job. Three wishes are quite unnecessary.

But this is the story of three thousand years of longing - the sort of yearning that can only build up if you're trapped in a bottle at the bottom of an ocean for centuries, or buried under a granite step in a forgotten castle basement.

The djinn has to not only explain this to Alithia, but get her to feel it, too.

It's no mean task to try and encapsulate all of Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights into one tale. George Miller was inspired by a short story by Booker Prize winner AS Byatt - and it's certainly like nothing else around. 

It's a little chilly and resolute in its refusal to go where you want it to go, until the end.

And despite the dazzling digital effects and the stellar lead performances, the story does retain the traditional appeal of someone's wildest dreams told round a campfire in an Arabian desert.

Today, fantasy and fables are too often limited to comic books and spinoffs of older, better stories. So it's highly agreeable to spend time within an imagination like George Miller's, brought to life by collaborators as unpredictably creative as Tilda Swinton and Idris Alba.

A banquet indeed.