By Lynn Venhaus
Visually stunning, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is wonder on a grand scale.
While attending a conference in Istanbul, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) happens to encounter a djinn, aka genie (Idris Elba), who offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. She is a scholar well-versed in mythology and storytelling, and is highly skeptical – after all, so much folklore involving genies turns into cautionary tales that end badly. He pleads his case by telling his fantastical life adventures, and she’s beguiled. What happens next surprises them both.
Far from his Fury Road, risk-taking director George Miller leads us on a less-traveled path. With his flair for the unusual, Miller charts new territory – his “Mad Max: Fury Road” won six Academy Awards in 2016, so of course the film’s technical elements are superb.
While I am not the biggest fan of the fantasy genre, I can appreciate the technical skill and the amount of difficulty in making it look seamless.
The work of cinematographer John Seale, who came out of retirement for the second time to shoot this movie (the first being Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”), is exquisite — the vibrancy of his framed shots is breathtaking.
The film unfolds like a novel. Miller collaborated on the screenplay with Augusta Gore, adapting A.S. Byatt’s short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” first published in the Paris Review in 1994. Like the British author Byatt, Miller puts familiar fairy-tale themes in a contemporary context, commenting on society along the way.
It borrows freely from “Arabian Nights,” that compendium featuring “One Thousand and One Nights,” which brought genies, or djinns, into the modern lexicon. Djinns in Islamic culture are often considered demons, but not here. There is a mystical charm to his powers.
Yet, the stories the Djinn weaves to plead his case are not as captivating as Elba and Swinton are. The pair is far more transfixing in bathrobes than the quixotic spectacles involving the Queen of Sheba and the Ottoman Empire, because those meander and such detours take us away from the film’s more interesting core relationship.
Oscar winner Swinton and Elba, who won multiple awards for his finest work in “Beasts of No Nation,” are endearing in their roles as lonely hearts whose solitary existence have led them to this crossroads. Elba could read my tax returns and I would be spellbound.
Alithea’s skepticism is relatable – it would be easy to dismiss it all as a mirage – but it’s not, and her new discovery is a joyful sojourn, particularly when she returns to her life in London. The two bigoted biddies who live next door are a hoot.
However, understand that the exotic panoply is necessary for the fanciful backstory. It’s just curiously not that engaging – a broad canvas of heroes, villains, royal protocol and expendables.
One thing about Miller, though, is that the guy always has a unique perspective – whether it’s a savage post-apocalyptic world of survival or a whimsical journey of a sweet little talking pig or dancing penquins. (After all, he won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for “Happy Feet” in 2006).
Swinton and Elba make us care about their characters’ outcome. Without them anchoring this film so skillfully, I would have checked out early. Still, it feels long even with its 1 hour, 48 minutes run time.
Come for the dazzling cinematic work, stay for the mesmerizing acting.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a 2022 fantasy-drama-romance directed by George Miller and starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba. It is rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence and runs 1 hour, 48 minutes. It opens in theaters Aug. 26. Lynn’s Grade: B.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.