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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ on Amazon Prime Video, George Miller’s Gorgeous but Tedious Fable

Certified nut/genius George Miller followed up movie-of-the-century-so-far Mad Max: Fury Road with Three Thousand Years of Longing (now on Amazon Prime Video), in which Tilda Swinton plays an academic scholar who acquires an antique bottle containing a djinn – or genie, if you’re a Westerner – played by Idris Elba. We shouldn’t be surprised to see Miller further diversify his wide-ranging filmography (Happy Feet, Babe, The Witches of Eastwick, the classic Mad Max films, even Thunderdome, which hasn’t aged as poorly as you think) with this eccentric outing, a box office flop that’s as visually creative as it is mentally taxing. Now let’s get this over with so we can move on to insanely anticipated Fury Road prequel Furiosa, shall we?  

The Gist: Alithea Binnie is the name of a character that possibly only Tilda Swinton could play. Alithea Binnie: A name that screams, get the f— outta here, because it’s far too British, even for fanciful, strange, weirdly boring movies like this. She’s a narratologist, a studier of stories, who’s visiting Turkey to speak at a conference. She looks into the crowd and pauses mid-bloviation, because there’s a strange figure in the audience that apparently only she can see. Is it a premonition or an omen? Probably! She’s out shopping when, in the nook in a niche in a shop in a crack on an Istanbul street, she finds a lovely little glass bottle and purchases it, even though the shopkeep points out its flaws and suggests she buy something else. PISH-POSH, she wants this one, and so she takes it back to her hotel room, which is the very same one in which Agatha Christie used to stay and write. How many stories high is this room? Oh, so so many, of course.

She starts scrubbing some of the soot from the bottle when whoosh, out pops the Djinn (Elba). He’s really really huge for a while but he also can shrink himself to more palatable proportions. He shall grant her three wishes, although there are rules: No wishing for more wishes or world peace, and asking for George Miller to skip making this movie so Furiosa will get done sooner is OFF THE TABLE. Thing is, Alithea doesn’t want anything. She’s also wise enough to suspect that djinns probably aren’t trustworthy. Be careful what you wish for is a moral attached to so many sagas and fairy tales, and she knows ’em all. And here you thought being a narratologist had no practical applications.

So, while Tilda Swinton sits there in a posh white hotel bathrobe, the Djinn hopes to win her trust by regaling her with his own story, consisting of three parts. The first has to do with the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, the latter of whom imprisons the Djinn in a bottle that ends up at the bottom of the sea for centuries. The second takes place during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, a Game of Thrones-type political-maneuvers drama about a mother and her twin sons with some who-will-rule drama, and all that; here, the Djinn is long stuck beneath a very heavy stone floor tile. The third is set in the 1800s, when the Djinn falls in love with someone else’s wife, and not only gets his heart broken, but ends up stuck in the very bottle Ms. Binnie holds in her hands right now. 

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Definitely not any of the Mad Maxes. I haven’t seen this much sitting around a hotel room in a bathrobe since Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. And the last movie from an auteur that took massive swings and kinda struck out was David O. Russell’s Amsterdam.

Performance Worth Watching: The cast seems fully committed to Miller’s vision, which tends to eclipse individual performances. So maybe it’s worth noting how Tilda Swinton’s performance isn’t as eccentric as we’d expect from her when she’s starring in George Miller’s imaginative riff on Arabian Nights

Memorable Dialogue: You can’t say Alithea Binnie lacks self-awareness: “I’m a literary scholar. I don’t know much,” she tells the Djinn.

Sex and Skin: Copious amounts of frontal, side-al and back-al nakedness; some on-screen scrumping.

Our Take: I’m going to cop a line from Alithea Binnie – still can’t get over that ridiculous name – that pithily sums up my experience with Three Thousand Years of Longing: “Despite all the whiz-bang, we remain bewildered.” Miller remains a master of visual wonders, as ever, upending his cornucopia of whimsies and letting them flutter and scamper and soar and ooze all over the screen. So the visionary efforts are present, absolutely, but they’re not memorable without a consistently compelling narrative. The marvelous places and persons and things Miller shows us play out at the service of a series of allegorical fables that feel too distant from our hearts to fully engage them.

The crux of the drama here is the Djinn’s attempt to stir Alithea’s empathy for his suffering, yet Miller continuously cuts away from the film’s most interesting characters and performers – nobody will debate Elba and Swinton’s status as powerhouses of their craft – for familiar parables whose characters feel like thinly rendered ciphers for larger ideas. Frankly, it’s a drag, despite being a feast for the eyes. The film gets past these diversionary hang-ups for the third act, when the characters feel relatively vested in their emotional arcs, and Alithea ponders somewhat relatable bon mots such as “Love – is it a truth or simply madness?” But it’s too late. By then, the film has tested our patience too much to warrant giving a damn.

Our Call: SKIP IT. Disappointing. Still very much up for Furiosa in 2024, though.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

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