Review: Love, Hope and “Three Thousand Years of Nostalgia”

There is not a cynical molecule in the composition of “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” by George Miller. “a patient and sometimes dazzling fantasy about love, myth, hope, camaraderie and perhaps, most importantly, storytelling. Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, wrapped in fluffy white bathrobes, will reiterate the storytelling point again and again during a vulnerable and sprawling conversation in a stately Istanbul hotel suite that’s nice enough to make contemplating a career in the university environment.

Although the decor and wardrobe may seem familiar, this story is anything but. Only one of the parts, Alithea Binnie of Swinton, is human. Elba is an immortal djinn, the fanciful term for the anglicized “genie”, whom Alithea stumbled across in a small scratched glass bottle in an unsorted bin at an Istanbul antique store.

In most stories, the ability to suddenly obtain your heart’s desire with a wish is good news, at least at first. But Alithea is not someone with a wish list. Not only is she a proud, contented, childless single woman, but she’s also a “narratologist” who knows the mythology so well that she knows all the ways wish fulfillment and granting can go wrong. And yet, by not fulfilling her duty to make three wishes, she also condemns the jinn to non-existence. He tries to convince her otherwise, by telling fantastic stories of his past, spanning some three thousand years, and all the times he was kicked back in the bottle for loving the wish too much, of Sheba (Aamito Lagum ), to a servant who longs for a prince, Gulten (Ece Yüksel), and finally the married child of an old merchant who longs for knowledge, Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar).

These stories are enchanting, brutal, sensual, grotesque and often involve power struggles and irrational decisions made out of love. Miller plays across a wide range of cultures as the djinn leaps through time, all with his own shimmering palettes and fairytale hyperrealism. It’s a good reminder that Miller is a man who can tackle both ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Babe: Pig in the City’.

Sometimes you can get impatient wondering what this is all about and if you even care, as Alithea doubles down on her position that she’d rather not make wishes at all. But she and the audience will be surprised. It’s the kind of moment that doesn’t make much emotional sense on paper, but that’s what we go to the movies for, isn’t it? Swinton and Miller make it work.

For all its romanticism, the film can also rest on a difficult foundation: the inglorious trope of the “magical, mystical ghostwriter.” The term was popularized by Spike Lee, who at a lecture to Yale students over 20 years ago identified a trend exemplified in films like “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The Green Mile.” in which the powers belonging to the black characters, often exotic, seem to be used only for the benefit of the white characters. No matter how the various movies try to justify it, the relationship, as Matt Zoller Seitz would later write in Salon, “is that of master and servant.”

You don’t get a more literal portrayal of master and servant than the genie and the person who freed them, and here the point is that the jinn is black and the human is white. But “Three Thousand Years of Nostalgia” doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that internationally embraces that idea. One could even argue that the Elbe jinn exist outside of the race somehow. Would it have made a difference if he was blue?

Or maybe the phrase, like the Bechdel test, was never meant to be a literal dividing line between acceptable films and films that aren’t, but a way of talking about representation and, yes, of storytelling. Maybe, as Swinton herself once said in the face of criticism regarding another fictional character’s race, anything could be true.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing,” a United Artists Releasing release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “brief violence, some sexual content and graphic nudity.” Duration: 108 minutes. Three out of four stars.


MPA Definition of R: Restricted. Children under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.


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