‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’: Still dreaming of Genie

My readers (Hiya, Ma!) know I hate plot spoilers, but the following is not only revealed within the first few minutes of Three Thousand Years of Longing, but is also the main premise of Australian director George Miller’s (the Mad Max franchise) new movie. In Longing, Alithea (British actress Tilda Swinton of The Beach, Snowpiercer, Doctor Strange) is a narratologist—a scholar who studies storytelling—attending a conference in Istanbul (courtesy of Air New Zealand). There Alithea purchases a bottle at an archetypal bazaar of the “Mysterious East.” As I guessed right away and is immediately disclosed—so it’s no great mystery—inside of said bottle is a genie, whom Alithea unwittingly releases from his glassy bondage.

As is obligatory in various fairy tales, the mythical creature grants three wishes to his liberator from centuries-long captivity in the bottle. As if the Djinn being the great, handsome actor Idris Elba (The Wire, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Thor and chosen as “People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive” in 2018) doesn’t automatically count as being at least one of the wishes come true for the bookish, lonesome Alithea, who is so full of longing and describes herself “as a solitary creature by nature!” (The word “genie” is the anglicized version of “djinn.”)

Miller and Augusta Gore adapted Three Thousand Years of Longing for the screen from A.S. Byatt’s short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. It falls within the tradition of 1940s Technicolor extravaganzas including The Thief of Bagdad with Sabu and Arabian Nights, starring Jon Hall, Maria Montez and Sabu, in that these eye-popping “Orientalist” epics deal with mythic material, giving it the full Hollywood treatment—spectacular special effects (flying carpets!), scintillating cinematography and romance for the ages. Swinton’s character’s name, Alithea, is even reminiscent of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, another big-screen blockbuster for Hall and Montez in 1944.

Through his spellbinding stories, in Longing the Djinn transports Alithea and audiences back in time, for example to the fabled affair between the Queen of Sheba (drop dead gorgeous Aamita Lagum) and King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad), which took place during the Biblical epoch (and we know how steamy that Old Testament could get!). We witness harems and other vignettes from the ancient world, as revealed in this R-rated romp by the Aladdin-like Djinn. Shot by Oscar- and BAFTA-wining director of photography John Seale (the Miller-directed Mad Max: Fury Road, The English Patient, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), Longing is an optically opulent epic, full of artsy slow fades to black. Kym Barrett’s costumes and Lisa Thompson’s sets enhance the eye candy of this sumptuous cinematic treat.

As a narratologist, Alithea is swept along for the ride, as fans of fantasy dramas are likely to be too. So, what does the British academic long for? Millions? Gems? Fame? But of course, Alithea goes for broke and asks the Djinn to bestow upon her nothing less than the ultimate adventure of them all: True love!

The romantic fantasy collides with reality when Alithea and the Djinn return to her flat in contemporary England together, where the interracial couple come up against history’s recurring nightmare: Racism. For this genie is far from the one composer Stephen Foster dreamed of, the “Jeannie with the light brown hair” in that famed popular song Bing Crosby and so many others have crooned. The London-born Idris Elba is the son of parents from Sierra Leone and Ghana, while Tilda Swinton is a London-born Caucasian. Confronted by prejudice, will the multi-culti characters have a happy ending?

The beautiful-looking Longing is for fans of fantasy productions, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. But if this genre full of special FX, mythical creatures and the like isn’t your cup of tea, its 108 minutes, with all those pretentious, overly long fades to black, it may feel like it takes 3,000 years to sit through.

Three Thousand Years of Longing theatrically opens August 26 and is truly one of those motion pictures best experienced on the big screen. The trailer can be viewed here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.