The career of writer/director George Miller has been unusual, to say the least. Kick-started by the Mad Max trilogy in the early 1980s, his filmography included a couple of well-regarded films for adults before moving into kids fare with Babe: Pig in the City and the two Happy Feet films. That made 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road seem like kind of a comeback for him, as it had been 30 years since he had visited that world.
What all of his films have in common, though, is a visual flair that few other filmmakers can match, something on full display in his latest, Three Thousand Years of Longing. Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a literary scholar, has traveled to Istanbul for a conference. While there, she purchases an ornate bottle in an antique shop, one that appears to have been stained with ash in a fire.
Back in her hotel room, she attempts to clean the bottle only to inadvertently release a giant Djinn (Idris Elba) who had been trapped in the bottle for hundreds of years. His offer to grant her three wishes in exchange for his freedom is met with reluctance by Alithea, a natural skeptic. The Djinn goes into storyteller mode, guiding her through his entire 3,000-year history in hopes of changing her mind.
That synopsis makes the film sound somewhat banal, but what transpires on screen is anything but. The storytelling choices made by Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore are enthralling, romantic, and wholly original. The majority of the film consists of flashbacks into the Djinn’s history, a decision that could have put the two leads in the background. But the filmmakers weave in conversations between Alithea and the Djinn often enough that it all becomes part of a whole.
The flashbacks are interesting not just for what the Djinn has had to endure for millennia, but for the visual treats that Miller inserts into each story. Traveling through time to different eras, the film showcases all manner of finery, and cinematographer John Seale captures both the people and the clothes they’re wearing — or not wearing — exquisitely well. The Djinn is also constantly surrounded by an ethereal dust, a special effect that retains its beauty throughout.
Developing a relationship between a human and a Djinn might initially seem tough, especially as it features a racially-iffy pairing of a stand-offish white woman with a Black man doing her bidding. But the film deftly avoids any potential pitfalls by upending expectations surrounding Alithea’s desire to make wishes, as well as taking its time establishing a connection between the two.
Swinton seems to specialize in emotionally-disconnected characters, and while Alithea appears to be that way for much of the story, Swinton plays her as just open enough to make for some swoon-worthy scenes late in the film. Elba is definite eye candy, spending many scenes shirtless, but the depth he brings to a character that could be one-note cannot be overstated.
Three Thousands Years of Longing is far from your typical genie-in-a-bottle movie, offering an adult spin on the concept that ratchets up the stakes. Add in Miller’s ability to fill screens with visual wonderment, and you have a film that captivates on all fronts.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is now playing in theaters.