Three Thousand Years of Longing

A funny thing happened to me in 2022: without intending to, I started seeing movies that I knew next to nothing about, aside from their titles, their above-the-line stars, and a vague sense of their plots. I saw no trailers beforehand, I read no reviews. It is, I think, how people are supposed to see movies: allowing for surprises and bringing few expectations to the door. And this is how I saw After Yang, Men, Nope, Emily the Criminal, Bullet Train, and now Three Thousand Years of Longing.

Does it make the movies better? No, but it's a nice mentality to have.

I did know that 3000 years, if you'll allow me to shorten the title, was directed by George Miller, whose work is interesting even when he's not making a Mad Max film. So for that reason alone, I figured it would be worth catching. Beyond that, I only knew that it starred Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba and that it had something to do with the old genie-in-a-lamp gimmick.

Swinton plays an English academic who has come to Istanbul for a conference on the psychology of storytelling. While sightseeing, she chances upon an old lamp in an antique shop, buys it, takes it back to her hotel room to clean it off, and voilà – rubbing it produces a giant genie, or Djinn as they are now more respectfully called, played by Elba. Naturally, he asks her to make three wishes, but instead she asks him to tell her about his life in and out of the lamp – a life that has gone on for, you guessed it, three thousand years.

The bulk of the film consists of Swinton and Elba chatting it up in white bathrobes in her hotel room, interspersed with the Djinn's flashbacks, set in the ancient Far East and opulently filmed by Miller and veteran cinematographer John Seale. The Djinn's romantic tales are fun to follow, and play off well against the film's theme of the joy of storytelling.

Inevitably, however, as with all "flashback movies", we must return to the present day to wrap things up. So something like 3000 Years can either go the Amadeus/Saving Private Ryan route, in which the "today" scene is merely a little epilogue, or it can segue into a whole third act set in the present. 3000 Years opts for the latter, and that's where it falls apart.

What follows is a sort of spoiler, but it's crucial in explaining why 3000 Years doesn't work. In short, after listening to the Djinn's saga of love and loss for a couple of hours, the professor suddenly tells him that she's in love with him and wants to take him to London. The third act thus documents their new life together – and ironically, it's the one part of this story-loving film that isn't story-driven. It's merely a series of sequences that don't add up to much and certainly don't forgive or explain the clumsy "love story twist".

The screenplay, by Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore – nepotistic collaborations tend to stumble, Schitt's Creek notwithstanding – is adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt. I have not read the Byatt work, so I can't say how faithful Miller and Gore are to it, but 3000 Years certainly smells like a short story: it purports to be epic – a fantasy spanning three thousand years! – yet it's just two people talking in a room. Ho hum. That said, if you watch only the first two acts, you'll be rewarded by some nice Baron Munchausen style visuals.