I’ll tell you right out–I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon
That quote popped in my head during Three Thousand Years of Longing, as the film centers on two people hungry for dialogue. Over the course of two hours, stories become their currency. Alithea (Tilda Swinton) and Djinn (Idriss Elba) tell sad tales of loneliness and lost love, while director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) paints their words on a canvas of a million colors. Longing is a visual feast–a treat for people who love to watch people who love to talk.
Based on the short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” by A.S. Byatt, the film opens on Alithea, an intellectual woman somewhere in the midst of middle age. Early scenes show us a worldly soul, well-rounded and amiable. At the same time, Alithea has no partner, no children, and few close friends. Her narration assures that she is alone, but not lonely. And yet, a thin layer of sadness coats her words. An old proverb says we most regret the conversations we never have, and Alithea seems like the walking, talking embodiment of words unsaid. She’s alone, but she’s even lonelier than she appears.
We learn that Alithea is a traveling academic, and her lectures touch on how civilizations use mythology to explain what their grasp of science cannot. Meanwhile, she is hounded with visions of ghosts and demons, who seem to be lashing out at her. Alithea’s mind is rooted in logic, so she dismisses these hallucinations as the work of an overactive mind.
Naturally, the reality is a little different. At the Istanbul bazaar, Alithea is drawn to an iridescent blue bottle, and she decides to take it home. As she cleans the bottle at her hotel, a plume of purple smoke fills the room, and a giant humanoid creature springs from the open spout. He is a Djinn, a mythological figure sometimes referred to as a genie. As is custom, the Djinn tells Alithea that he is beholden to her, and she gets three wishes. He also closes the standard genie loopholes: She can’t ask for unlimited wishes, nor immortality or world peace.
With boundaries established, Alithea looks at this fantastic scenario with her standard clinical, chilly precision. What if she has no need for Djinn’s wishes? What if her heart’s desire is to keep her life exactly as it is? The Djinn is nonplused by her bland practicality, as her attitude means he will never be free. So, he tells Alithea the story of how he came to be trapped in the bottle, in the hopes his plight will change her heart and mind.
This brings us to the meat of the plot, in which Djinn and Alithea reveal themselves. Director George Miller (who cowrites with Augusta Gore) weaves rich flashbacks into the fabric of the movie, deploying CGI and old-school film mastery to captivate our eyes and ears. We jump to different points in history, as the stories unfold in voiceover. I don’t want to reveal anymore, as much of this film’s magic lies within its sheer unpredictability.
Longing also captivates on the strength of its lead performances. Swinton plays Alithea as a torrent of contradictions: She’s cerebral and contained, but also unabashedly romantic. Her emotional independence and intellectual curiosity conceal a vulnerable and frightened woman underneath. As Djinn, Elba is empathetic and kind, but also restless and impulsive. He has formed an intense bond with anyone who’s ever released him, and Alithea is no exception. Every story about a genie in a bottle is a cautionary tale, and she’s convinced any made wishes will lead to her ruin. As Djinn grows fond of Alithea, he has to wonder: What if she’s right?
I’m a huge fan of Miller, and both actors. My own wish was for Longing to be a perfect movie–a balls-out masterpiece in the quality of Fury Road. Unfortunately, it falls just a little short. The first two acts are an exercise in bravura filmmaking, a rare symbiosis of storytelling savvy and the technical mastery to bring it all to life. But as the plot moves into its final stretch, some of the air sputters out of the balloon. Miller shifts down into conventional storytelling, and the result is a denouement that’s surprisingly staid. If Longing could’ve sustained its momentum all the way through, we might be looking at a movie for the ages.
Still, three-fourths of a masterwork beats the hell out of none at all. Most movies are limp, flavorless affairs, like a bland, collapsed soufflé. I’ll take the savory and sweet brilliance of Three Thousand Years of Longing any day of the week. This is a story told by people who love to talk, crafted into a movie by people who love movies.
108 min. R. In theaters.