Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) inhabits the perfect role in a movie that’s a story about telling stories. She works in the equally fictional-sounding position of narratologist, specializing in myths and legends, and while she resides and teaches in London, at the start of “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” she’s arriving in Istanbul for a conference. Writer and director George Miller based his movie on the title story in A.S. Byatt’s 1994 anthology “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” but it’s apparent early on that “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is as much a personal, affectionate tribute to the power of story as it is a fantasy about the highs and lows of love and desire. When Alithea arrives at her hotel in Istanbul, she’s surprised with a stay in the Agatha Christie suite, where the famed mystery writer reportedly penned her most renowned work, “Murder on the Orient Express.” At a lecture, she and a colleague delve into how comic book superheroes comprise our modern myths, a graphic prominently featuring Superman displayed behind her. And at a curio shop in this ancient city from which stemmed some of the world’s most oft-told tales, Alithea buys a pretty little vase she digs out from beneath a pile of knick-knacks.
It’s after she returns to her hotel room that Alithea becomes a part of those stories that so much of her life seems to revolve around. While scrubbing the dirty bottle, she inadvertently pops its top and unleashes billowing clouds of purple smoke that coalesce into an enormous, human-like being: a djinn (Idris Elba). After the djinn gets situated, quickly catching up on the current culture and language by examining Alithea’s laptop and TV, he informs Alithea that she needs to make three wishes— her heart’s desire, with some limitations— because after he grants them he will finally be free. It’s the sort of opportunity most people would leap at, but Alithea is flummoxed. She, ever practical, has no heart’s desire— at least, she doesn’t think she does. In her narration that opens the film, she states that she is alone (no spouse, no children) and likes it that way. We later discover through her conversations with the Djinn that she was married, once, but that she and her husband grew apart and he eventually left her for another woman, a child lost before it was even born implied to be the impetus for their downward spiral.
But moreover, because she is so well-verses in myths, Alithea knows what the Djinn is capable of, and of what follies can come of indulging in his powers. To catch her up on how he came to be her in possession, the Djinn tells Alithea three stories: three stories of love, and how the actions love spurred him to caused him to end up back inside the bottle every time, spanning from three thousand years ago to the time of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), to palace concubine Gülten (Ece Yüksel) in the time of the Ottoman Prince Mustafa in the 1500s, to the intelligent and fiery Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), a woman thirsty for knowledge and stuck in a passionless marriage to a much older man. Like most anthologies, these extended flashbacks framed as the Djinn telling Alithea stories as they huddle in her room occasionally miss the mark, but it’s difficult not to be drawn in by Miller’s beguiling concoction of fantasy and history, especially when Elba is the storyteller, his low voice conveying the tinges of sadness and regret over his past that provide the emotional beats the narrative sorely needs. The spell-binding visuals don’t hurt either. Some of the computer effects aren’t too convincing, but cinematographer John Seale (who Miller lured out of retirement for 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and again to work on “Three Thousand Years”) works his magic, whirling the viewer over vast landscapes and elaborate palace interiors and in and out of the Djinn’s perspective. Exhilarating cinema is crafted even from the scenes where the characters are mostly sedentary. He keeps the camera moving even when characters are just sitting in a car, or following Alithea out of the airport. Margaret Sixel, Miller’s wife and frequent collaborator, serves as editor and enhances the camerawork even more with her cuts, a series of match cuts in the aforementioned sequence, for example, tracing the wheels of the plane touching down, to the wheels of Alithea’s baggage cart as she disembarks.
It’s when “Three Thousand Years” turns into its overlong fourth act after the stories have been told that it becomes a much more trying affair. Alithea discovers that she does want to make a wish, as much to her surprise as it is to the viewer. Miller’s attempt to end on a big swing for romance is admirable, but the change in Alithea is too abrupt, and the romantic chemistry between Swinton and Elba, talented performers though they are (I mean, who else could play a a woman named Alithea Binnie but Swinton?), is too flat when it ought to sizzle. The issue of the film’s exoticism of people of color, a problem that haunts the otherwise fantastical images Miller conjures in his imaginings of Middle Eastern countries and peoples throughout, takes on an even more troubling edge in this chapter as well. Perhaps being a magical being like a Djinn means he transcends race, but Elba’s character is essentially repressed by a white woman for an extended period of time, existing to serve her but not able to be his own person because of that. Of course, that’s part of the film’s lesson—that love must grow organically and not be forced, so that by the end of the movie the Djinn spends time with Alithea of his own volition— but the casting of a Black man and a white woman in these specific roles automatically casts a problematic shadow over the relationship.
Despite issues that make for an underwhelming experience, I kind of love that “Three Thousand Years Longing” is the movie Miller chose to make in between his acclaimed— and dare I say, revolutionary?— “Fury Road,” and his upcoming prequel to that film, “Furiosa.” Proving over and over throughout his career that he is as adept at creating charming family fare (“Babe,” “Happy Feet”) as he is gritty dystopian action movies, Miller marries the two here for a story that, for all the tragedies it contains, is too in love with love and with the creation and telling of tales to ever feel cynical. And it’s a real family affair as well; in addition to Sixel, Miller collaborated on the screenplay with his daughter, Augusta Gore. That affection that exists in the very fabric of the film’s creation is reflected on screen, because for all its faults, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” above all makes it clear that it is never too late to open up to love.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” opens in theaters August 25. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated R.