There’s a power in three. That’s what a djinn (Idris Elba) tells Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) in George Miller’s latest film, “Three Thousand Years of Longing.”
Based on the short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A.S. Byatt, Miller and Augusta Gore’s screenplay tells the stories of a djinn’s three lovers, the three times a djinn was trapped in a hand-sized brass bottle and a djinn’s power to grant three wishes to anyone who summoned him over the course of three thousand years.
Alithea, a literary scholar on a work trip in Istanbul, is the latest fated candidate to summon the djinn — purchasing the blue and white glass bottle that contains him from a knickknack shop.
Red and purple vapors fill her hotel room (No. 333) until it becomes suffocatingly tiny as a gigantic djinn becomes trapped in a slightly bigger cage, chained to a new master until he performs the three wishes that would grant him his freedom.
There’s a power in three, but Miller should have heeded his own advice. The film — which covers a sweeping passage of time from the biblical era of Solomon (Nicholas Mouawad) and the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) to modern-day London — should have cut a third of its 108-minute length from its runtime. It’s when the film begins its fourth act (we did not need an epilogue from three years later) that this viewer checks her watch.
Despite the film’s unbalanced pacing, Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a mesmerizing cinematic experience. Its most valuable conduit: cinematographer John Seale. (We’re lucky Miller convinced Seale to return from retirement again to shoot this film. The pair’s previous partnership in “Mad Max: Fury Road” earned them an Academy Award nomination for best achievement in cinematography.)
Seale and Miller defy Issac Newton’s first law of motion: A body at rest will stay at rest. Even for a story where most of the action takes place as a conversation arrested in a hotel room, the camera stays in motion. Seale’s camera bobs and weaves, swimming through the aisle of an airplane. It follows the back of Swinton’s red bob as she guides us through this story as the film’s narrator. It tilts up, making humans appear as giants. It circles the inside of the trinket shop. It floats, hovering above the steam of a bathtub. It pans right, then left — inside a car, glancing the driver’s profile, then back seat — making the audience feel like they were an eavesdropping spectral passenger sitting shotgun on a dizzying surreal and hypnotic hallucinative ride.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is an unbalanced film about power imbalance. Swinton and Elba are an odd coupling. They share equal weight as the film’s narrators, but Elba’s soothing voice holds more gravitas. He’s given the lines for the film’s most enchanting stories. He’s the reason we lean in and listen closer. We’re drawn to the heartbreak of Elba’s djinn as we’re drawn to Robin Williams’ genie in the animated “Aladdin.” Yet the djinn is a slave to Swinton’s character and the whims of fate. He wishes that she makes her wish so he may be free, but will her wishes actually grant him freedom?
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a cerebral film that barters in riddles. It’s a cautionary fairy tale about wishful thinking. It’s a flawed, but intoxicating kaleidoscope of stories. If only the film ending were as strong as its beginning and middle.