The Surprising Tender Heart of ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’

‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ is an unexpected visual feast that is more a love story than it is a supernatural, mythical adventure.

Based on the trailer, ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ looks like a crazy, out-of-the-box fantasy tale involving two incredible actors – Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba – and the out of this world imagination of director George Miller.

Miller, who has shown great depth and versatility having directed both ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and the penguin musical ‘Happy Feet’ as well as directing the delightful 80s women-centric supernatural comedy ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ and then dramatic biopic ‘Lorenzon’s Oil.’ His filmography is such that it can bring a rush of excitement over whatever project he conjures up next and what aspect of the human condition he plans to turn into some cinematic spectacle.

Photo courtesy of Go Asia Entertainment

Tilda Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a narratologist, who discovers a djinn (genie) in a bottle during an academic conference in Turkey. As a narratologist, Alithea is vastly knowledgeable about stories of all kinds, and is an expert in mythology and ancient lore. During her conference, she exhibits hallucinations of mystical beings that engage with her but no one else can see. Are they all in her mind or are they really happening?

So when the djinn (played by Idris Elba) is freed, it doesn’t take much for Alithea to understand what is happening and what is at stake when the djinn tells her that he is obliged to grant her three wishes. But as someone who is well-versed in the stories of man, of different cultures and different eras of human civilization, Alithea is not one to be so hasty and what unravels is a story within a story, akin to The Tales of the Arabian Nights and the story of Scheherezade. 

Photo courtesy of Go Asia Entertainment

What begins in a hotel room in Turkey, with Alithea in a bathrobe and the djinn eventually following suit, discussing the parameters of their arrangement, the story shifts into the many tales of both Alithea and the djinn and the scenes shift to the stories they weave.


Each story is set in a lush, extravagantly production designed wonder of that era. A story about the Queen of Sheba or a story about a prince of the Ottoman empire brings us to these moments with a casting that befits these characters and while a lot of the story is told through the narration of Elba or Swinton, when the characters do speak, it is of the language of that land and of that era. On paper, the narrative is a lonely narratologist and djinn talking in a hotel room exchanging stories but what you see are foreign lands in a different time. Miller’s playful use of the camera allows us to go into the heart of these stories, and as the title of the film suggests, they are stories about longing and love and desire.

Photo courtesy of Go Asia Entertainment

I was expecting a riotous, frenetic film filled with bombastic visuals as the trailer suggests but instead, I found myself marveling at the tender heart that is beating at the center of this film. It is visually stunning but it was unexpectedly warm and poignant. The film doesn’t only highlight the power of stories in our lives – how we use it everyday in the way with which we see ourselves and the world – but it also explores the various nature of our wishes and desires. 

Swinton and Elba take this eccentric, whimsical little fairy tale and manage to infuse their characters with so much humanity, Swinton playing a caricature of the intelligent, introverted master of stories with such precision that when her character makes a sudden realisation later in the film about what it is she truly desires, the caricature almosts fades immediately and she suddenly becomes human in an instant. It’s something that happens without a cut, a sudden epiphany that happens in a sparkle of her eyes. Playing off of this is Elba, who is at home playing an otherworldly being, who possesses great power but also a sad history. It’s there in his posture, in the way he plays with his voice.

Photo courtesy of Go Asia Entertainment

‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ is an unexpected visual feast that is more a love story than it is a supernatural, mythical adventure. It’s a modern fairytale about love and desire and the cost of such an emotion in this world, whether human or djinn. It is not afraid to be unconventional or weird. It is not afraid to be steeped into the world of its own stories and then to push back into the modernity of the narrative framework of its own film. It’s refreshing, surprising in how bold and daring it is and, as he always does, George Miller has surprised me once again.

My Rating:

5 stars - Don't Look Up review

Distributed by Go Asia Entertainment, Three Thousand Years of Longing is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Buy your tickets here.

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Three Thousand Years of Longing
Drama, Fantasy, Romance
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