A film about stories: what greater escape could a book nerd want? When I watched the trailer for 3000 Years of Longing, I was intrigued by its good cast, fun premise, and enticing visuals. I had such high hopes – and George Miller‘s 3000 Years of Longing didn’t quite live up to them. It’s an adaptation of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt, a novella in which a scholar and a djinn trade stories. Byatt’s work focuses on the scholar and women’s lives; the movie focuses on the djinn and his journey.
3000 Years of Longing begins with its narrator, Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a self-described narratologist – an academic who studies stories – attending a conference in Istanbul. Alithea says she’s content with her life, as she has everything she needs to be independent. Then, as she exits the plane, she hallucinates a small man with glowing eyes who murmurs something cryptic. Later, while presenting at the conference, Alithea hallucinates a glowing, guru-like figure who engulfs her, causing her to pass out on stage. Neither weird, interesting character has any relevance to the overall story except to reveal Alithea’s active imagination, one that occasionally comes with hallucinations. I presume the latter are meant to show how repressed she is, but they seemed entirely unnecessary.
While in a market, she purchases a glass bottle because “it looks like it has an interesting story.” I’ll admit that this line got me. I was leaning forward in my seat because, like Alithea, I am hooked on stories.
You can probably guess what happens next. Back at the hotel, Alithea starts cleaning the bottle, and, in a burst of smoke and giant body parts, a Djinn called Djinn (Idris Elba) appears. Following the necessary questions and comical misunderstandings, including Albert Einstein finding himself plucked from a television screen, the Djinn and Alithea settle into a series of stories and debates. As an expert on stories, Alithea refuses to make any wishes – she knows all too well that stories about wishes never end happily.
Instead, she talks about her marriage, her miscarriage, and her happiness at being alone with her books. But as she talks with the Djinn, Alithea’s desire for connection and companionship surface in a particularly British (repressed) way. In fact, 3000 Years of Longing focuses on desire a great deal: The Djinn tells how he was trapped in bottles three times over the course of three millennia all because of desires. His undoing is the women he falls for, from the Queen of Sheba – part djinn herself – whose eventual lover King Solomon trapped Djinn in a bottle at the bottom of the Red Sea for 2,000 years, to the third wife of a 19th-century king who desired knowledge beyond all. The Djinn’s love for these women entrapped him. He needs to grant three wishes, true desires of the heart, before he can be free.
The Djinn’s stories are shown in vibrant flashbacks and enticing visuals, and they’re narrated expertly by Elba, but they stutter and drag more often than you’d expect. Neither Elba nor Swinton can really shine, since the entire telling is narrated. But where 3000 Years of Longing truly fumbles is the romance that forms between Alithea and Djinn. Swinton and Elba are incredible actors who embody their characters, but they never form a believable connection or genuine passion.
And so we jump ahead to Alithea finally wishing – for Djinn to love her as she loves him. Where her attraction came from was lost on me. Alithea was so lonely that she fell in love over the course of a conversation. It’s basically like a Disney movie. The most troubling part is that Alithea wishes for Djinn to love her. He is still bound to the bottle and now bound to love her? I’m sure that 3000 Years of Longing meant for him to already be in love with Alithea before she makes her wish, but the lack of chemistry between the two means that the intention simply doesn’t come off.
And so the movie’s last half-hour is a limited-edition love story. It turns out that Djinn can’t stand being around all the noise in the air from electricity, internet, phones, and television, so Alithea completes her wishes, sending Djinn to “Where you belong – wherever that is.” She packs everything about him up in a box and shoves it on a shelf in her basement, writing down her story as something that happened and is over. That is, until Djinn comes back. He returns every so often and stays longer than he should, promising always to return in Alithea’s lifetime.
It’s an unsatisfying end for a story about stories. 3000 Years of Longing delivers interesting visuals, and flows with fun cinematography and good stories; but it offers enticements that go nowhere, and, ultimately, falls flat. I struggled to find the point of the story. Is it that stories don’t always end the way you think they will? That you should follow your heart’s desire, even if doing so will lead to disaster? To enjoy happiness while you can? That stories are powerful? I couldn’t say. I’m curious to know what happens after the fade to black, suggesting this story remains incomplete.