Three Thousand Years of Longing teems with Idris Elba’s Djinn-soaked tales

George Miller’s Arabian Nights riff weighs myths, monsters and love through the Djinn’s extravagant fantasias spun for Tilda Swinton’s doubting lecturer.

Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie and Idris Elba as the Djinn in Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

► Three Thousand Years of Longing is in UK cinemas from 30 September.

  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

A pet project that has preoccupied director George Miller on and off for over two decades, Three Thousand Years of Longing finally appears as the filmmaker’s self-declared “palate cleanser” between Mad Max epics – Fury Road (2015) and its upcoming road warrior-queen prequel Furiosa. It is, safe to say, quite the gear-change.

Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore have freely adapted A.S. Byatt’s 1994 short story collection of fables The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye; specifically the novella that gives the anthology its title. There’s an Arabian Nights flavour to this premise, the first clunky clue dropped with the Shahrazad Airlines plane that transports narratologist Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) to Istanbul to lecture on the shifting power of myth in the age of rational science. “All gods and monsters outlive their purpose,” she confidently opines, “and are reduced to the role of metaphor.” A shimmering, spectral figure, grimly staring her down from the rapt audience, loudly disagrees. And when she buys an antique bottle trinket from the city’s bazaar, and inadvertently opens it whilst scrubbing it clean, she unleashes the Djinn within.

Said Djinn (Idris Elba), with elvish ears and a two-tone Amish-style beard, is now beholden to her and obliged to offer three wishes (though the actor’s fans might argue a pliant Elba clad in just a bathrobe already constitutes wish number one). Binnie, as an expert on storytelling, is warily cognisant that all wish stories are themselves “cautionary tales”. So, attempting to win her trust and gain the freedom only possible once the wishes are dispatched, the Djinn launches into a centuries-spanning series of tall tales that detail his own history of empowerment and entrapment.

It’s here that the film breaks out from verbal sparring in Binnie’s plush hotel suite into full-blown, full-CG fantasy. The Djinn’s “extravagantly unlucky” life takes him from unrequited love for the Queen of Sheba (he’s shunned for the all-too-perfect King Solomon), through the scheming Ottoman court of Suleiman the Magnificent, to an enslaved young nineteenth-century bride who wants to upend the patriarchy through magically acquired knowledge.

At his best Miller is a virtuoso at kinetic, outlandish visuals, with a puckish humanity that other action maestros often lack. But the unrelenting plasticity of the film’s look (Covid lockdowns enforced green screen even for some modern-day urban locations) is wildly uneven and at odds with, for example, Fury Road’s grinding metal and choking diesel practical effects. 

At the film’s worst, even master cinematographer and long-time Miller collaborator John Seale seems shackled into making a glorified perfume ad. But every now and then a flight of imagination truly takes off: the Djinn’s Waking Dream, a cascading, golden spiderweb-like network of connections across time and space; or Solomon’s living, breathing mutated musical instrument to woo his Queen, a very Cronenbergian construction.

To give Miller and Gore credit, while each of the Djinn’s stories impart words of warning about unbridled desire, fear, power and the like, they stop short of doling out neatly wrapped messages in the way of A Monster Calls and its titular tale-spinner. If anything, the film leaves things too vague, such that when it eventually resolves Binnie’s wish-making dilemma and confronts her largely solitary existence, there’s a nagging sense that some primal emotional thrust has been lost in translation. “Love is a gift,” not something that can be wished for and provided, someone says late on. Whether that notion been fully explored, or obscured by the digital pyrotechnics, is very much up for grabs.

Still, Swinton and Elba make for an engaging double act, the former clearly relishing yet another outré accent-hairdo-outfit combo, the latter savouring the opulent, eloquent narration. Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) explores a very different musical palette from his bombastic Fury Road score, ranging from Middle Eastern percussion to unabashed, string-laden romance. The whole project is clearly a heartfelt labour of and about love for Miller and his team, its inventiveness and earnestness often neck and neck with its more garish, clodhopping choices. If that’s the sort of ‘Djinn tonic’ that refreshes Miller enough to reinvent the action wheel once more in Furiosa, it’s hard to stay too mad with the results.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy