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Three Thousand Years of Longing review: Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba fantasy enchants

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller's sweeping romance casts a potent spell.

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba in Three Thousand Years of Longing
Published: Wednesday, 31st August 2022 at 12:26 pm
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A star rating of 4 out of 5.

“My story is true, but you’re more likely to believe it if I tell it as a fairytale,” announces Tilda Swinton’s character at the beginning of Three Thousand Years of Longing. And she should know. An academic, she studies narratology – and, fittingly, is our narrator for this soul-searching odyssey. Like any good fable, there will be illusion, romance, and a timeless quality that spirits audiences to faraway lands. But there will also be the mundane: from Turkish hotel rooms to London residences.


The film is based on the AS Byatt short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, which was published in 1994, shortly after she won the Booker Prize. Adapting it is Australian director George Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore. It’s Miller’s first film since 2015’s staggering Mad Max: Fury Road, his return to the post-apocalyptic universe he created with the 1979 original. While that was an electric journey of few words, over a few days, this verbose story takes place over three millennia. They couldn’t be more different, beyond sharing Miller’s splendid visual imagination.

When the film begins, Swinton’s character Dr Alithea Binnie heads to a conference in Istanbul. She’s a loner, we learn, ever since her husband ran off with a younger woman. Since then, she’s closed herself off to matters of the heart. When she’s delivering her lecture, she suddenly sees a strange vision, causing her to faint. It won’t be the last time she is greeted by the otherworldly. Out shopping in a bazaar, she buys a trinket, which she takes back to her hotel room. When she cleans it with her toothbrush – as if by magic – a Djinn (Idris Elba) appears.

At first, he is his actual scale – just glimpsed as an enormous golden-coloured foot that’s practically the size of Alithea’s room, like something from a Ray Harryhausen movie. But then, this pointy-eared sprite reduces himself to human form, dresses in a hotel bathrobe and sits on the bed beside Alithea. Like all good genies, he wants to offer her three wishes, whatever her heart desires, in exchange for his freedom. But as a student of such things, the academic is wise to this. “There is no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale,” she says.

Idris Elba in Three Thousand Years of Longing
Idris Elba in Three Thousand Years of Longing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Instead, she listens to the Djinn’s story, one that will transport us back three thousand years, to a world of sultans and buxom concubines, where a malevolent magician dooms him to incarceration. “Can you imagine the loneliness?” he cries, trapped inside a bottle, and held under a stone slab with little chance of being found. But of course, that’s just part of his tale, one with allusions to everything from the Bible to the Arabian Nights. As Alithea falls under her spell, so her emotions gradually unlock.

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Miller and his cinematographer John Seale, who previously shot Mad Max: Fury Road, conjure up the Djinn’s exotic tales with real elan, even if the back-and-forth between Alithea’s pristine hotel suite and the Djinn’s past can become a little cumbersome. Swinton, with her red bob, is ideal as the buttoned-up academic, like a less flamboyant version of the art historian she played in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Elba, meanwhile, uses his imposing, muscular presence to great effect, whilst playing a more romantic role that he rarely gets to do in movies.

The final act switches to London, and it’s less a case of happily ever after as the story takes on a more melancholic tone. Miller also delves into fear of the other, especially when Alithea confronts her prejudiced neighbours in one particularly potent sequence. But above all, it’s a love story both transcendent and tragic. Some will find the meandering nature of the story frustrating, but there can be no denying Miller has a sweeping romantic vision which he pursues vividly. As an ode to the art of storytelling, it’s also utterly charming.

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Three Thousand Years of Longing is in cinemas from 2nd September.

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