Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a scholar. She studies the art of storytelling, presenting at a conference in Istanbul. In the past, she remarks, stories were told as a means of understanding the world around us. Before science, humanity was unable to explain the rising of the sun or the coming of the seasons. We explained our natural world through mythology. Today, we don’t give the same credence to the Gods of mythology, but our superheroes owe much to these mythical beings. Alithea prompts us to wonder what place do stories hold in our own lives today – are they to move audiences, to entertain? To inspire wonder?
Alithea, her name taken from the Ancient Greek word for “truth”, ironically is a character full of contradictions. She holds a solitary life, and says she is content, but Miller reveals that her solitude is not enough for her at times. Director George Miller presents Alithea in part as unreliable – she hallucinates a disturbing short man who takes her luggage – so when she summons the Djinn (Idris Elba) by opening his bottle, we have our doubts whether or not the Djinn is real. But that hardly matters.
The Djinn tells Alithea that she has three wishes. More than familiar with stories of Djinn, Alithea has her reservations about making her wishes. A number of these stories result in peril for the wishmaker, and Alithea believes she can avoid any misfortune by refusing to make any wishes. The Djinn is frustrated that Alithea does not trust him or believe that the wishes can be used to her benefit – he is trapped in our world and cannot be released until he has granted all three wishes.
To attempt to convince Alithea he has no ill motives he begins to tell his story, beginning three thousand years ago with the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum). His stories are entrancing, all of which center on love and misfortune that occur before each wishmaker can wish their third wish. In some, the Djinn is in love with the wishmaker, while in others the Djinn tells of the hundreds and thousands of years he has been trapped in his bottle, attempting to guide people to it. Noting these stories’ tragic ends, Alithea remains conflicted whether or not to make her three wishes.
Through taking us back in history, George Miller shows us eras much different than our own. Bringing the Djinn’s stories to life reminds me of a number of silent films’ ‘exotic adventures’, in particular the Fritz Lang film Destiny, a story in which a woman is given three chances to prevent tragic romance. Miller toes the line between inspiring wonder and exoticizing through the Djinn’s flashbacks, but nonetheless succeeds in portraying the magnificence of the Djinn and the miracle of his immortality. Elba’s performance as the Djinn is excellent, helping to ground the film, and the Djinn’s yearning for love and freedom is where Three Thousand Years of Longing pulls at our heartstrings.
Nonetheless, the film is challenged in finding its tone and in honing in on its ambitions. Though Alithea does not meet a bitter end like many wishmakers, Three Thousand Years of Longing is yet a cautionary tale. What place do stories hold today? Rather than explain the world around us through mythology, humanity has since crafted a new world, a world just as inexplicable to many of us – of television, x-rays, and inquiries into the subatomic. How can we engage with stories today? Perhaps we tell and consume stories to help satisfy what we long for. After all, what unites the mortal and immortal, human and Djinn, is the sensation of longing.