In the brain-tickling eyesore that is “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” Tilda Swinton plays a narratologist, which is to say, someone who studies stories. Her character, Dr. Alithea Binnie, thinks she’s heard them all, so she’s ahead of the game when she suddenly finds herself at the center of a whopper, a modern-day fairy tale involving a djinn (Idris Elba) ready and eager to grant her three wishes. Some movies aspire to uncover the meaning of life. This one aims to uncover the meaning of movies — as director George Miller attempts to crack the all-encompassing formula for story, the way Albert Einstein did for theoretical physics.
That’s an awful lot for any filmmaker to bite off, but then, this is George Miller we’re talking about, and where else does one go after making the ne plus ultra of action movies, “Mad Max: Fury Road”? Many will describe “Three Thousand Years of Longing” as a relatively small project for such a creatively ambitious director, who also made penguins dance (“Happy Feet”) and pigs talk (“Babe”). Perhaps it is, though this unconventional romance — adapted from A.S. Byatt’s “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” and told by Swinton’s character — spans two continents, three millennia and myriad languages, trying to fashion an utterly original love story from the recycled clichés of everything that has come before.
These days, audiences are so savvy about the tricks at a filmmaker’s disposal that the movie’s greatest achievement is that it seizes our imagination (or perhaps that’s our attention-deficit disorder being so brusquely manhandled) and holds it for the better part of two hours, defying us to anticipate what comes next. Sure, the first turning point is predictable enough. One can’t have a wishing story without a djinn-in-a-bottle any more than one can have a Tom Collins without a bottle of gin, after all. But once the magic vessel has been activated, it’s anybody’s guess where this kooky roller coaster is going.
Alithea believes that “all gods and monsters outlive their original purpose” and is understandably skeptical of a mythical creature like Elba’s pointy-eared spirit, trying to approach the situation as logically as possible. That’s a tall order for Miller, who is basically a professional daydreamer, and Swinton, whose openness to off-the-wall collaborations is why we love her in the first place. Here, we’re supposed to believe that she’s a conservative soul too levelheaded and dispassionate to take the djinn up on his offer.
That puts the onus on him to sway this wary new master, who’s convinced that wishes always backfire because that’s how they inevitably turn out in every story that any culture tells about them — which isn’t true, mind you. Just ask Walt Disney, who made a career of granting wishes, no strings attached. Still, it feels relatively novel to encounter a character in Alithea’s position who rejects the offer to have her heart’s desire made manifest. She’s at a point in her life where she doesn’t want anything, she tells the spirit.
But the djinn has at least one thing she craves: He’s full of stories, and for most of the movie’s running time, he will regale Alithea with the accounts of his past masters, and how freedom has evaded him for so many centuries. That’s as powerful an aphrodisiac as one could spring on a know-it-all narratologist, and Alithea listens not like a scholar — and certainly not like a critic — but more like a child, delighted to be hearing the real-deal history behind the legend of Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) and Sheba (Aamito Lagum), which looks like a tacky Zack Snyder fantasy executed on a fraction of the budget, or something that Tarsem might have rejected for one of his music videos.
Seriously, what possessed Miller and “The Chronicles of Narnia” production designer Roger Ford to settle for such egregiously artificial, predominantly virtual sets? The movie’s poorly rendered backdrops look dated already: endless fake deserts, above which loom garish CG palaces, with their Maxfield Parrish interiors and naked (or else nearly nude) courtesans and queens. The movie has a weird problem with private parts, both male and female, which spend most of their time hidden just out of frame, but occasionally flop into view when a pregnant slave spreads her legs directly into the camera or a djinn’s tastefully shadowed djenitalia loll into the light.
Whether or not Miller’s aesthetic is for you, it’s basically his brand to reject what more traditional filmmakers think of as “good taste.” He’s one of an odd group of ’80s schlock filmmakers who hit the big time — a class that includes “Dead Alive” auteur Peter Jackson and “Evil Dead’s” Sam Raimi — expanding their vision to ever greater budget while sticking to the trick shots and gonzo stunts that betray their B-movie roots.
After the Sheba sequence, the djinn spends 1,500 years in a brass vase, reemerging in the Istanbul of the early Ottoman Empire, where the second in line to be sultan spends his adulthood locked in a harem with corpulent concubines. One, dubbed “Sugar Lump” (Anna “Betty” Adams), all but smashes the vase with her hefty hindquarters. Flash-forward another couple centuries, and the djinn is on call once again, this time answering to an insatiably curious woman named Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar) who wishes to possess all the knowledge that is good and beautiful in the world. That’s a noble goal, though she’s before her time, a brilliant woman trapped in a sexist culture. A well-crafted wish would no doubt solve that, but Miller prefers to make his putatively feminist point via a vulgar sex scene.
The djinn proceeds to explain how he found Zefir’s intelligence irresistible, all but sabotaging his own fate to spend a few months madly in love with her. Alithea and author Byatt clearly know more about djinns than the average viewer, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in narratology to realize this spirit is crossing some serious conflict-of-interest boundaries. What effect will this supernatural oversharing have on Alithea? Why, it’s foreplay, of course, for the movie’s last act, in which the djinn may as well be bottled up again by Alithea’s desire to experience a love on par with the world’s greatest romances. (Theirs seems like weak tea by comparison.)
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” arrives at a moment when storytellers are going all meta on worn-out formats, the way “Russian Doll” reshuffled the “Groundhog Day” genre or “Everything Everywhere All at Once” did the multiverse rulebook. Maybe jaded audiences will appreciate how self-consciously innovative Miller’s spin on the djinn movie is trying to be. Or maybe they’ll find themselves asking why someone with Alithea’s training can’t tell a more coherent story, when Joseph Campbell’s tried-and-true monomyth has worked so well for Miller before.