‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ Review: Left Wanting

Longing, despair, joy, disappointment — it's all here.

When I first saw the trailer for Three Thousand Years of Longing, I could not have been more excited. It promised a bombastic and colorful adult fairy tale “from the mad genius George Miller,” the rare filmmaker for whom such fanfare does not seem hyperbolic. Three Thousand Years of Longing is Miller’s first feature since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, this century’s most celebrated action film, and as always, Miller has pivoted in a new, unanticipated direction. While the trailer leans into the heart-pounding frenetic energy we remember from his last masterpiece, Three Thousand Years of Longing is actually a far more sober and dreamlike experience than I expected. Surprisingly, it did not make me feel very good, but it did make me feel a lot, which I’d say is a higher compliment. In point of fact, a movie doesn’t have to be anything special to make me feel good. Bullet Train made me feel good. A movie also doesn’t necessarily have to be artful to kick the shit out of me emotionally, either, but that’s not an experience for which I’m eager to fork over $15.

It takes a special kind of film, however, to mix me up inside to the extent that I’m not sure which feelings I want to explore in this review. I feel joy, I feel despair; I’m impressed, I’m disappointed; I’m all over the fucking place. I’ve been worked over, very deliberately and effectively. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a haunting, thought-provoking romantic fantasy unlike anything else I’ve seen this year, and it got to me on a level on which I might prefer not to be reached.

Prisoner of Love

Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a narratologist, a scholar who studies the shape and repeating patterns of stories across history and cultures. For most of her life, stories have been her only company, and she says that’s enough for her. She is alone, but she wouldn’t describe herself as lonely, nor as happy. She is, in her own words, content, While at a conference in Istanbul, Alithea buys an antique bottle as a souvenir and, after scrubbing it with her electric toothbrush, releases the handsome and lovelorn djinn (Idris Elba) trapped within. As expected, the djinn offers to grant Alithea three wishes in gratitude for his freedom, but Alithea knows that all stories about wishes are really warnings, and politely declines. This, however, is not an option, as the djinn must either grant her heart’s desire or be condemned to a fate worse than death. Alone in a hotel room, the immortal djinn regales Alithea with the story of how he became imprisoned —not once but three times — and each time with a broken heart.

For much of its runtime, Three Thousand Years of Longing is an anthology of short tragedies, narrated by the djinn and performed by a cast of unfamiliar actors in selectively subtitled Turkish. This plays into the film’s storybook quality, as each scene is essentially a living illustration of the djinn’s narration, contributing lucious detail and nuance but rarely adding unique plot information. An audience member who is listening to the film rather than watching would be missing an incredible production, but could follow the plot without difficulty, as if being read to.

At the same time, just as in a picture book (or any great film), the images also tell the complete story. Each flashback has the narrative simplicity of a fairy tale — characters’ motivations and temperaments are often encapsulated in a single sentence or image — but it’s the djinn’s fleshed-out recollection of the events that gives them a rich, adult emotionality. He’s a supporting character in all of these narratives, a device through which others seek fulfillment, but he has his own wants and needs that are rarely, if ever, satisfied. The three flashbacks, each their own tragic parable, create a mosaic of the djinn’s desperately lonely life.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is a film about both the privilege and the prison of codependency. Human beings are built to need each other, and also need to feel needed. In the parlance of the film, love is a trap that you choose not to escape. What does it mean to give another person that kind of power over you, or to accept it from someone else? Absent any easy platitudes about how it’s “better to have loved and lost,” etcetera, TTYOL muses on the ways that love gives us courage and purpose, and makes us uniquely vulnerable to self-harm.

The film has a romantic core, but is most interested in love as a source of pain and helplessness. Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba are well cast as two very different embodiments of emptiness, one resigned to a life of content solitude, the other starved for acknowledgement after spending centuries in isolation. Elba’s djinn, though often depicted in the form of a twenty-foot-tall mountain of muscle, is no less fragile than the famously slight Swinton, brought low by the pain of rejection. Swinton is a multi-time gold medalist in the Beautiful and Sad Olympics, but here, Elba stands tallest on the podium. For viewers with a bittersweet tooth, Three Thousand Years of Longing should be an irresistible treat. 

Three Thousand Years of Longing

What’s Left to Wish For?

While most of the cast is made up of relatively unknown Turkish or Australian actors, there’s plenty of familiar talent below the line, and it shows. Frequent George Miller collaborators such as editor Margaret Sixel (who won an Oscar for Fury Road) and cinematographer John Seale (who is otherwise retired) have returned for this project, as has composer Tom Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL), who plays against type to deliver a beautiful romantic score. (It’s been days since I saw the film and I can easily recall its main theme from memory, a very rare thing in modern Hollywood.) Costume designer Kym Barrett, known for her collaborations with other maximalist directors like Baz Luhrman and the Wachowskis, joins Miller for the first time to create a vibrant and memorable array of looks from across four time periods.

As you might imagine, Three Thousand Years of Longing is a dense and deliberate visual smorgasbord. The camera dances between storybook tableaus and tantalizing close-ups, floating about spaces with the ease of its viewpoint character. Where a flying, free-roaming camera often betrays the falseness of a digital space or characters, its use here never shatters the heightened reality of the film. 

Perhaps this is because so many of TTYOL’s visual effects are deliberately off-putting. In one of the film’s opening shots, Alithea sees a spectral figure standing in a crowd in Istanbul, and it feels superimposed onto the frame, creating the same sense of disorientation that one gets when adjusting to 3D goggles. (So far as I know, this film is not getting a 3D release.) This sort of thing happens a few times in the film and it took some getting used to, but it’s a creative choice that I find very interesting. Why should magic look real? Why should it make any visual sense at all?

If we rationalize magic as being some as-yet-incomprehensible energy from another plane of existence, shouldn’t its manifestations in our world seem foreign? Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore play with this thematically, as well. We create mythology to explain that which we don’t understand. Is science therefore the death of myth? Can magic survive in a place like this? Or is it merely that we lack the context to appreciate the magical nature of our own modern world? 

There’s so much going on in Three Thousand Years of Longing that it commits what is, to me, a very rare sin in modern Hollywood — it ends too quickly. The final third of the film takes the story in a new direction, one that feels as if it could easily sustain three acts by itself. But, in keeping with the fairy tale pace of its flashbacks, it is painted in broad strokes, with little time to enjoy its status quo. When the credits rolled and Holkenborg’s heartbreaking theme began to play, I felt hollowed out, unsure of myself, unsure of the film. I walked out of the theater in a daze, and watched my cursor blink over a blank page the whole subway ride home. It took me the better part of a week to finish this review, as I sorted out my feelings and, to be honest, avoided revisiting them. It took me forever to realize that Miller and company had done this to me entirely on purpose. 

I’m supposed to be left wanting more. The sensation that I’m feeling has a name, and it’s in the title of the film. The warning signs were there from the start and, like most people who find a djinn in a bottle, I dismissed them and suffered the consequences. This review is a cautionary tale, and in the spirit of wishing stories, I urge you to ignore it.