George Miller absolutely blasted audiences away with his Mad Max: Fury Road back in 2015. That film was in your face: visceral, thrilling and inventive. Suffice to say that his latest venture was highly anticipated. Three Thousand Years of Longing is essentially a two-hander, starring Tilda Swinton (sporting a red bob and a broad Yorkshire accent) and Idris Elba (sporting pixie ears and not much else).
The story is set mainly in Istanbul. We first glimpse Alithea (Swinton) flying into the city with Scheherazade Airlines. This would have been a nice visual joke had Miller not decided to show us the same nod to his tale at least two further times. For just as Scheherazade spun tales for a thousand nights, so Miller – via his Djinn (Elba) – spins stories for us. Alithea (which is Greek for Verity) is on her way to a conference for she is a professor of narratology. And it is while she is in the city that she suffers from strange visions of magical figures. After buying an old glass jar in the bazaar, Alithea unleashes the Djinn whilst cleaning the object with her electric toothbrush. And here lies the issue. Is anyone else uncomfortable with a Black man enslaved to a white woman, who is solely responsible for granting his freedom? This is not to say that Elba is bad. Far from it: he is charming and handsome, soulful and funny. Swinton is her reliably dependable self and there is a feeling that both leads are thoroughly committed. Yet that niggling discomfort remains throughout. It is only towards the end of the film that Alithea herself voices similar misgivings about their relationship.
What saves this modern-day fairy tale is the childlike pleasure Miller induces by weaving stories reminiscent of children’s tales the world over. There are princes and slaves, love stories and death, drama and passion. As the Djinn recounts his life story, which spans centuries, both Alithea and the viewer are drawn in. Perhaps if Miller had made the human character more believable and gone for a less heightened depiction of reality, perhaps the magical element would have been, well, more magical. Alithea lives in a fabulous house in central London that most literature professors would kill for and her home seems like something out of the Paddington films – a fictionalised London that bears little relation to reality. And the film’s palette is just a little too bright. By making everything seem a little false, the magic is harder for us to believe in. This is a shame, for Elba and Swinton make excellent and engaging storytellers.