Once upon a time is nice, but what about twice upon a time? How’s about thrice? Just as nice and then some, reveals noted film director George Miller of the Mad Max tales of yore, who this weekend weaves a cinematic spell to get us through the rest of our days (and maybe one thousand and one of those nights as well) with his latest, the romantically and fantastically inclined Three Thousand Years of Longing. Starring Tilda Swinton as a lonely intellectual and Idris Elba (fresh off his lion fight in Beast) as the strapping Djinn who’s come to shake her loose, Longing is a lovely little star-flocked fable for grown-ups, as horny as it is, uhh, horny (which is to say “stuffed with mythical horned creatures.”)
Tilda plays Alithea, a London-based narratologist (she studies the history of storytelling) whose sharp red bob posits a harshness that never quite materializes. She’s tough and she’s fiercely independent to be sure, but she’s also quick with a smile and generous, truly interested in all those around her, and Miller lets Tilda keep some of that sweet Scot lilt of hers that naturally softens every snappy comeback. Alithea insists that she’s perfectly happy being alone, fulfilled by her work, and the movie, bless it, is smart enough to see that as capable of being true but also of being not quite so simple. An early zoom in on her restless leg lets on there’s an earthquake simmering just underneath, all while her outfits, bursts of color cutting the drab modern world to its quick, feel like a proposition. An invitation. It just takes some of that old rubbing to get the sparks necessary for flame and that red bob’ll be burning even brighter.
In this case, with regards to the rubbing that is, it’s on a small glass bottle, half-blackened and burned on its own bottom, that Alithea has pulled from beneath a pile of assorted baubles in the backroom of a bazaar during a work trip to Istanbul. Back in her hotel room and fresh out of the shower—it is worthy of mention that our two singularly gorgeous leads spend the first half of this film wearing crisp white bathrobes with nothing underneath—she gives that little blue vial a good rub and tug and, wham bam thank you Aladdin, before she’s even realized it there’s a foot the size of four ottomans stacked up sticking through her door-frame. She lifts and lowers her glasses and his skin swirls like outer space, black and blue and infinite, but there stands a gigantic naked man shaped like Idris Elba all the same. (Give or take a bottom half that’s smooth as purple midnight satin where the boy bits might be).
Being a narratologist, and one with a historical sense of magics which we’ll soon come to be acquainted with, Alithea is quick to piece together the game now set before her—a Djinn has just popped out of a bottle and he will now grant her three wishes. Or, as he puts it, “her heart’s desire,” which is as fully erotic slipping out of Idris Elba’s lips as you think it might be. The distinction though isn’t just one of mere phraseology, because it demands the ache inside one’s self from a real, pure need—knowing all of the genie stories Alithea fast to suspect trickerster-ism but this Djinn will have none of that. He’s come for the deep stuff, the true stuff, the makes-your-lower-belly tremble stuff, and nothing less.
And so five minutes into it our characters have arrived at an impasse—Alithea insisting that she needs nothing, while the Djinn’s own fate now finds itself tied to her figuring out as least three things she just might. And so he leans into what she knows and loves best, and he begins spinning her fantastical tales—his own mainly, through long centuries of love and folly in perhaps lopsided measure. And here Miller’s movie spreads its feathery wings out too, fluttering out the window of this Istanbul hotel room where two people-shapes sit in terrycloth, and it makes like storytellers have since the fitful starts of time—big beautiful cave-wall and ink-scratched poetical enchantments piling up, one atop the other atop the other. A tower of yarns, each successive thread more fantastical than the last.
The Djinn tells Alithea warnings of how he was trapped in his bottle not once, not twice, but yes you got it. He tells her tales of woe and tales of astonishment, or war and feast and sex and betrayal. All the goodies. There are fur-legged goddesses and murder by bowstring, and Miller delights in fast-forwarding through eons like the flick of a wrist, pages snapping. A fish becomes a stone becomes a weapon becomes a wall, and a boy becomes a man becomes a war becomes a myth. And around the time a prospective beau’s musical instrument began playing itself with a set of its own extra arms I’d found a smile spreading across my face like wildfire—there are more than many such moments here.
This is definitely Miller at a lower register than his automobile apocalypse movies demand, indulging in sweetness and a sultriness and a love of wordsmithery that would feel out of place in those high-octane low-syllable masterpieces, but this movie’s no less abundant. He clearly sneaked this one in as a little treat to himself in between Furiosas, squeezing the studio’s thirst for every droplet he could pool, but I too feel treated. I too feel quenched. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a weird little miracle, the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore, and we’re better off with it here, rubbing our bellies, granting our heart’s strangest unspoken desires.