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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Three Thousand Years of Longing // Film Review

“I am a literary scholar. We don’t know much.”

Stories about storytelling will always be fighting an uphill battle.

By design, they’re about nothing more than themselves, which makes them an easy trap for the vain and pretentious. But George Miller, for his many eccentricites, is not a pretentious man, which is why I was so curious to see how he would approach a film that appeared as self-interested as Three Thousand Years of Longing. The result isn’t exactly Fellini, but it’s not a higher-end Miller effort either.

Longing stars Tilda Swinton as Alitheia Binnie, a narratologist who insists on her happiness despite having “no kids, no parents, no siblings.” Stories are Alitheia’s whole world, and by her own account she’d have it no other way. That is, until she discovers the Djinn, played by Idris Elba, releasing him from the glass bottle in which he was imprisoned. In return, he owes her three wishes, after which time he will finally be permitted to return to the mythical other world where his people reside.

The problem is that Alitheia does not trust the Djinn, who appears first as a grotesquely oversized monster, and then as a warm and handsome figure wearing her bathrobe. She knows the stories, and why wishes aren’t to be trusted. To earn her faith and by proxy his freedom, the Djinn decides to share with her the tales of impossible feats and bitter betrayals that led him to the bottle in her hotel room.

What follows is a series of warm vignettes nodding to the storytelling tradition across history, full of rich language, delicate colours and a careful blend of effects practical and generated. Miller is clearly passionate about the details of this fictitious history of the world and its sense of wonder. Nothing ever looks entirely real (which Miller achieves through a very thoughtful use of CGI to differentiate between what he does and doesn’t want us to understand about the Djinn’s history). It’s a gorgeous journey through time, and the hour of cinema that comes from it is an easy highlight of the year, ranking up among the best of Miller’s material.

The issue, then, is the film’s final forty minutes, which attempt to mirror these tales with one in the present day, set around Alithea. Swinton, usually so reliable, comes across as tired here, being compelled to carry a romantic epic that is as random as it is forced upon her. The film here reframes Alithea’s curiosity as being beholden to the past, and incapable of experiencing new stories. The trajectory from here through to the film’s finale is as plain as it is recycled, with an ending so emotionally barren as to border on incoherent. If Miller’s point was to suggest that modern storytelling has lost its way, he certainly put in the work to prove it.

Ultimately, Three Thousand Years of Longing is not half the ego-trip it could have, being made up largely of vivid and loving short stories, but the film’s late attempts to tie them to a larger point about modern mythologies is as confused as it is unnecessary. The film seems eager to find its purpose, to give us something to think about, but in truth it works far better when it is simply an exercise in pleasures, a cinema of pure romanticism and poetry. But maybe those are a thing of the past.


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