Three Thousand Years of Longing (R) ★★★

Review Date: August 26th, 2022

I'm not sure whether I can argue that Three Thousand Years of Longing is among the best movies to be released during the so-called "post-pandemic" era (a time period that began in late May 2021) but it is one of the most singular, memorable titles. Suffused with hypnotic visuals and anchored by a tremendous performance by Idris Elba, the movie takes its cues from the fantasy workings of Guillermo del Toro (with aesthetic and intangible similarities to Pan's Labyrinth in particular) and is only occasionally found wanting.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is being advertised as "from the director who made Mad Max: Fury Road." This is a true statement but it could also be a detrimental one. George Miller not only made the most recent Mad Max movie but the three that preceded it as well. Not one to be pigeonholed, he also co-wrote and produced the beloved family film Babe. He was also the primary creative force behind the animated movie Happy Feet. In setting expectations for Three Thousand Years of Longing, it's important to keep Miller's versatility in mind because this movie is nothing like Mad Max or Babe. Instead, it's an existential examination of love, longing (as one might infer from the title), and whether all the trappings of the modern world are killing our sense of wonder. (I'm reminded of a quote by Fred Rogers: "Our society is much more interested in information than wonder; in noise rather than silence...And I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives.")

Encyclopedia Britannica defines narratology as "the study of narrative structure [that] looks at what narratives have in common and what makes one different from another." In Three Thousand Years of Longing, Tilda Swinton plays Alithea Binnea, an acclaimed expert in narratology and, true to her profession, she is obsessed by stories. She collects, collates, and analyzes them. In a meta sense, she becomes the narrator or her own story, starting it out by assuring us that everything she's about to relate is true but, because it may sound preposterous, she's going to frame it as a fable. "Once upon a time..."

One of the more devious tricks employed by Miller is to leave open the possibility that Alithea's “truth” may not represent that term in an objective sense. Early in the film, we learn that she's having visions (a strange man in an airport, a demonic presence during a presentation) while on a lecturing tour in Istanbul. Later, we are told that, as a child, she had a vivid imaginary friend. So, when she purchases a curious bottle and accidentally unstoppers it in her hotel room while cleaning it, a degree of skepticism might be warranted about what comes next. Is the giant djinn (Idris Elba) who emerges a real creature or is he yet another conjuring of Alithea's imagination? It's a question Miller never addresses directly (nor does he answer it), preferring instead to leave it up to the viewer.

Most of the movie takes place in a hotel room, with Alithea and the djinn (who reshapes himself to human size) having philosophical discussions. They swap stories although, understandably, his biography is considerably longer, more involved, and more interesting than hers. The djinn speaks of his past owners (which have included the Queen of Sheba) and his need for Alithea to make her three wishes. Once granted, he will be free - a state he has not enjoyed for millennia. But Alithea is wary. She recognizes that wishes are traps. Her preference is to make no wishes or, if she makes any, that they be inconsequential. The djinn counters that in order for him to grant a wish, it has to fulfill her "heart's desire." They are at an uncommon impasse.

Swinton is like the straight man in a comedy act: necessary to the progression of things but not really the focus. The story is told from her perspective but Three Thousand Years of Longing is all about the djinn - a role that Idris Elba owns. Staring with The Wire, which introduced him to millions, Elba has been one of the best and sometimes underused working actors. Often, he's better than the projects in which he appears; in this case, Miller has given him a part worthy of his talents. I'd describe the chemistry between the two actors as being "reluctant." It's not unlike the romantic tension between Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Merchant-Ivory's The Remains of the Day. Sparks don't fly but there's something just beneath the surface.

Miller's approach, despite the limitations of the immediate setting, is one of shock and awe. As the djinn spins his web of triumphs and tragedies, Miller crafts images of the past that are as impressive as anything he has previously committed to the screen. He uses words and images to paint complete pictures. The result is so arresting that there are times when we almost forget to follow a narrative that at times seems too slight to contain the weight of the film's visual mastery.

The movie's third act evinces its most obvious weaknesses as the arm's-length approach favored by the first 80 minutes limits the emotional engagement of the final half-hour. Three Thousand Years of Longing tries for an epic love story but falls somewhat short of that goal. I was, in fact, reminded of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie with respect to the resolution of the romance between Kiera Knightley's Elizabeth Swann and Orlando Bloom's Will Turner.

Three Thousand Years of Longing could be used as a textbook for the difference between sexuality and nudity. There's plenty of the latter sprinkled throughout the film but Miller specifically presents naked bodies in a non-erotic fashion. (To be fair, there is a little of the former as well.) It's unclear whether or not Miller was trolling the MPAA (as Paul Verhoeven has often done).

Flaws aside, Three Thousand Years of Longing leaves a lasting impression primarily because the point of the movie isn't action (there's not a lot) or narrative (it is, at best, uneven). Instead it's about the interaction between two living beings and an exploration of the deeper questions that arise from their encounter. It's an elegant and highly unexpected offering from George Miller that allows him to step away from the Mad Max universe if only for one interlude.

© 2022 James Berardinelli