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Three Thousand Years of Longing

Director: George Miller (USA). Year of Release: 2022

Dr. Alithia Binnie (Tilda Swinton in a red bob haircut and glasses on a string) is a narratologist, which is apparently a Thing. Her job is to travel the world and explain how myths and fables have developed in late capitalist society. Her main argument is that all gods and monsters outlive their original purpose and are reduced to the role of metaphor. To illustrate her point, a lecture which started talking about soothsayers and djinns ends with a picture of a Superman cartoon.

While she is delivering her lecture, she spots someone in the audience – a large, dark figure in white robes beckoning towards her. As the figure appears to approach her, mouth gaping wide as if it’s about to eat her, Alithia passes out on stage. Later she assures everyone that there’s nothing to worry about. She’s been having some strange visions lately. This is the woman who spoke the opening narrative which explained that everything that’s about to be told is entirely true.

In a bazaar in Istanbul, Alithia finds a small blue and white container. Many of the other bottles and vases look much prettier, but there’s something about this one. Back in her hotel bedroom she tries to clean it up a bit with an electric toothbrush. Out surges a huge djinn with a generic “ethnic” accent, looking suspiciously like Idris Elba wearing pointy ears. Alithia and the djinn converse in Ancient Greek until he learns enough English from the telly to be able to communicate.

We all knows what happens next. The djinn offers Alithia 3 wishes, carefully stipulating that he’s taking none of that “I want an infinite number of wishes” bullshit. But Alithia is having none of it. As a good narratologist, she knows that there’s no story about wishing which is not a cautionary tale, and she doesn’t want to encounter the inevitable learning process at the end. Besides which, she’s perfectly content with her life at the moment, and can’t think of anything she’d wish for.

Now here’s the problem. Djinns are immortal, and immortality can start to get very boring, especially if you spend most of the time trapped inside a bottle. The djinn needs someone to rescue him. Until he grants 3 wishes, his soul cannot be fried. By means of illustration, he tells Alithia stories about his previous rescuers, and how each of them just failed to make that final wish. Seeing as he hasn’t spoken to anyone in centuries, he starts to go on a bit.

Until now, the film had largely taken place in Alithia’s hotel room, with her and the djinn sitting opposite each other in matching bathrobes. As the djinn starts to play Scheherezade, and tell of his experiences with the Queen of Sheba, Solomon and other Eastern notaries, we move to various palaces and castles, although to be honest, it mainly looks like someone’s been working overtime filming things to project on a Green Screen backdrop.

There’s a certain tension between the film’s underlying intelligence (it’s based on a novella by AS Byatt apparently) and the need to make the most of all the available CGI. The film reflectively advocates the enjoyment derived from simple quiet story telling, while telling its own stories full of bangs per buck. This is a shame, as the best parts of the film involve us just listening to Tilda Swinton prattle on in a slightly comic Lancashire accent (think Jane horrocks in Chicken Run).

There’s been a spate of recent films which have insinuated an equivalence between independence, isolation, and loneliness (although, as the great Roddy Frame sang, “they call us lonely when we’re really just alone”). Three Thousand Years of Longing feels slightly ambiguous on this point. You tend to believe Alithia when she says that her life improved hugely after she left a good relationship turned bad. Yet she is also portrayed as a lonely woman who just needs some lovin.

Inevitably, annoyingly, Alithia and the djinn enter some sort of relationship. But just as we are starting to feel a little betrayed, the film pulls its master stroke. Alithia’s first wish, her only wish, is to have the same sort of love that was felt by the women in the djinn’s stories. And yet love is only love if it is freely given, with emotion not intellect. So the one thing that Alithia wishes for is the thing that she logically cannot request. And Alitihia is a very logical woman.

It would have probably been better just to end the film there. There’s an attempt to graft on an unnecessary and slightly sentimental ending which is in accord with Alitihia’s independence of spirit. This follows the main weakness of the film – it’s not sure whether it wants to be clever or sumptuous. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a film by George Miller, director of The Witches of Eastwick or George Miller, director of the Mad Max films.

Nonetheless, Three Thousand Years of Longing seems to have got an undeserved critical mauling. It is more intelligent than most contemporary films, and not afraid of discussing the history of Turkish pottery when this serves the plot. More than that, it’s a Tilda Swinton film. Is there such a thing as a bad Tilda Swinton fillm? As long as you know when to pay attention to what’s being said and when to shut your brain off and just enjoy yourself, you can’t do too badly here.

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