9/10 Three Thousand Years of Longing is an epic psychedelic romance that makes you feel every second, not of its 108 minutes, but of its sweeping millennia.
Room 333 of the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul- At a fiction conference, esteemed narratologist Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) discovers the bauble she picked up at the Grand Bazaar contains a djinn (Idris Elba). Only able to return to the djinn afterlife after successfully granting three wishes, the djinn is desperate to please, but Binnie, an expert on historical fiction, is naturally wary of any “three wishes” pitch. To earn her trust, the djinn tells Binnie of his 3,000 years of captivity and longing.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is devoted mostly to a single conversation in a hotel room, a conversation that is mesmeric and graceful enough to leave viewers hanging on every word. Elba and Swinton are masters of their craft, and writer/director/producer George Miller and cinematographer John Seale keep everything visually dynamic. There’s no transition here from one plot point to another, every shot, every line is the destination.
I watched Three Thousand Years of Longing near the end of reacquainting myself with the MCU, and as I was doing that, I always noticed myself losing interest and checking my phone whenever a big, dumb CGI action scene started – a specific goal of that project was to pay more attention to the action, so I was constantly forcing myself to pause and go back a few seconds. I don’t want to look away from Three Thousand Years of Longing for a second.
The talkie nature and lack of movement in the plot belies a story rich in conflict and emotional depth. Binnie appears to only to process reality in terms of fiction, understandable as her specialty subject but also convenient for someone generally resistant to change, and the djinn falls in love with everyone who rubs his lamp. There are deep internal deficiencies and conflicts driving each of them into a dynamic clash of wills.
Three Thousand Year of Longing is absolutely certain of what it’s about and would like you to know as well. The keywords “story,” and to a lesser extent “desire” and “hope,” register at every possible moment, and three might be the only number in this movie. The film itself is a triptych, built around the three different times the djinn has been captured. Running the risk of becoming irritating, this repetition fossilizes the film into the fairy tale space it needs to live inside of – the simple fact of performing it live action almost carries too much realism for this film, it needs this additional layer of smoke between it and reality to work so well.
Through its in-narrative storytelling, Three Thousand Years of Longing presents stories as the line between its reality and its fiction and blurs that line at the same time. The dialogue is pure poetry. We get to hear the djinn describing his flashbacks to Binnie, so the adventures back in time are just as verbal as they are visual. His use of English is perhaps the film’s greatest individual point of artistry, threading the needle of a master storyteller who believes in and regularly performs magic speaking to another in what is for him a newly acquired language. His simplistic telling of events add layers of meaning and wonder to everything onscreen. Later in the film when he begins to sniff his way through the modern world, his every word of description hums with imagination and surprise.
Language is a central element of Three Thousand Years of Longing, much of it in Hellenistic Greek and Ottoman Turkish, and more than that, the film centralizes Middle Eastern mytho-history, including mention of Islamic demons. The film’s grounding in a mythology that never really made it mainstream in European culture adds another layer of unfamiliarity and further frustrates Binnie’s attempts to frame everything as a story.
The pace is subtly relentless. Margaret Sixel, Miller’s wife and editor of five of his last six films including Mad Max: Fury Road, keeps Three Thousand Years of Longing moving forward at a steady, brisk pace, but because of the low intensity, relatively long shots and general smoothness of the film, a viewer won’t feel it the way they otherwise might.
As the long-awaited follow-up to Fury Road, Three Thousand Years of Longing seems curious, but it’s easy to identify that each film emerged from the same type of insanity. Because the djinn’s narration accounts for most words spoken in his flashbacks, most of the performances are purely physical, much like Fury Road. The way the frame is cluttered and the level of detail with which background characters are imagined and even the way that props are used to tell the story are all very reminiscent, as are the reports of yellowed storyboard pages – Miller spent 20 years developing Fury Road, and Three Thousand Years of Longing represents long-gestating ideas as well.
Also reminiscent is the film’s poorer performance at the box office than it deserves. No expense was spared on Fury Road – all those cars were really built to function at 70 mph on sand, it wasn’t cheap – and with $374.7 million worldwide against a $150 million budget, it’s in the black, but not the kind of inspiring performance that would animate the film industry to repeat its innovations.
Three Thousand Years of Longing, on the other hand, with no franchise nostalgia and no high-octane crazy blood that might otherwise draw viewers in, was dropped into late August making barely a splash, sitting at $17.1 million worldwide against a $60 million budget near the end of its run. Seven years after its release, Fury Road has certainly had spiritual successors, but they’re filmmakers like Tom Cruise and Christopher Nolan, not only energetic and capable cinephiles but also titans in the business who could already marshal that type of production.
After the failures of Tenet and Three Thousand Years of Longing, coupled with the deterioration of series like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings that were once legendary for their production designs and worldbuilding, the hope that this sort of lavish dedication to a film will become a norm again among high-profile movies seems dead for now.