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Three Thousand Years of Longing review - weird but not in a good way

George Miller's new movie is admirably unhinged but this madcap myth sacrifices profundity for fast-paced chaos and loses all coherence

Three Thousand Years of Longing review: Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba

Our Verdict

Three Thousand Years of Longing is little more than a rollercoaster of nonsense, stacking tales on top of one another and calling it a film like children in a trench coat.

The Mad Max director George Miller’s latest venture is a cinematic bong hit of cursed CGI, horny genies, and madcap myth – and not in a good way. Despite a promise of greatness, with the iconic pairing of Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, this hurried and outlandish whirlwind between a repressed academic and virile apparition fails on its promise to actually be about something profound. Instead, it plunges us into fast-paced chaos that can’t root the madness in any of the kind of reality needed to connect with any of it.

“Stories are the only way to make our bewildering experiences cohere,” says our raconteur in Three Thousand Years of Longing, Miller’s latest adventure movie, which – ironically – is little more than a rollercoaster of nonsense, stacking tales on top of one another and calling it a film like children in a trench coat.

Based upon the short story ‘The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye’ by A.S Byatt, we begin with an introduction to Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a solitary but professionally fulfilled woman taking a work trip to Istanbul.

The bespectacled academic is all too fond of the mythos of life, having spent years researching the very act of storytelling and narratology across the world.

Still, she doesn’t expect to cross paths with an actual Djinn (Idris Elba), especially not such a smooth-talking one who promises her three wishes, which in turn would free him from a curse that has kept him locked inside a glass bottle for over three thousand years.

Despite a lengthy hotel room conversation that makes up the bulk of the film, otherwise interspersed with flashbacks, the pair couldn’t be more different. “In some cultures,” Alithea says proudly, “the absence of desire is enlightenment.” Djinn responds coolly that she is a “pious fool.”

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Elba’s huge, scaly Djinn – complete with Legolas ears and a frankly unplaceable accent – recounts and regales stories that led him to being captured over the past centuries, from sexual relations with Queen Sheba herself, to stints in a fetish-laden imperial court, and romance with a secret young genius.

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All this, sadly, sounds much wilder and more fun than it actually is, with the epic scope squished into a short running time that flings you from bombastic CGI locale to bombastic CGI locale without pause for breath.

It’s evident how much passion and research George Miller and co embarked upon to bring this world to life, but the one hour 48 minute runtime feels too insubstantial for the breadth of material at play. What is frustrating is that this ode to the very act of storytelling ends up being, well, not a very good story in itself – rushed, chaotic, and no space to breathe.

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Even more disappointing is the eventual conclusion that this intelligent, independent woman actually just wants to be loved deep down, which is when the head-shaking really begins. “I want that love professed in ageless tales,” she reveals breathily, all-too-ready to be yet another stepping stone in the Djinn’s quest for true freedom.

It’s no surprise that Miller, whose chaotic filmography includes everything from iconic ’80s action movies to family favourites like Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City, has once again pivoted to what feels like an entirely new approach.

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Still, many of Miller’s works can be categorized as fairytales – even the circuitous Mad Max: Fury Road, which has left fans clamouring for more since it trotted away with six Academy Awards and critical acclaim in 2015.

There is plenty of grandiosity to appreciate in Three Thousand Years of Longing too, namely an intoxicating score by Tom Holkenborg, who uses a variety of instruments throughout the various tales, including the ancient woodwind duduk that gives off the feeling of longing.

It would also be churlish not to appreciate the sheer ‘fuck it’ unhinged energy coming off the whole thing as Miller’s long-awaited passion project. It’s a shame that ultimately, what should feel like an Arabian Nights-esque tale that takes your freewheeling through a bazaar of narrative glee feels more like a sugar crash rather than sensory delight.