Like any gay man, if I rubbed a genie bottle and Idris Elba came out, my first wish would be “do me now!”
And though it may surprise some people who’ve only seen her on the red carpet, Tilda Swinton is not a gay man, so when she first releases genie Idris Elba, she just wants to talk.
To go any further into Three Thousand Years of Longing, the new film by George Miller of Mad Max: Fury Road fame, you have to allow the director some latitude. He’s chosen to hew to traditional genie lore, dictating that his djinn (genie) be of dark-skinned origin and enslaved to whomever opens his bottle. And milky white Tilda Swinton is the bottle-opener here.
Due to the cultural precedents, I don’t think this choice is problematic. What is more debatable in this visually rich and conceptually interesting film is character motivation. One of those characters is fantastical, so I guess anything goes there. But Swinton’s character Alithea is supposed to be a real flesh-and-blood person, and a highly intelligent and moral one at that. The choices she makes with regard to unexpectedly becoming a Djinn’s master are less about what makes sense for her character and more about what Miller wants to show us.
But, hey, that’s almost always what you get with a famous director, and we don’t go to a George Miller film for My Dinner with Andre.
That said, the dialogue scenes that bookend Djinn’s flashbacks are surprisingly still, set in Alithea’s blank hotel room and given no mood-enhancing music or fancy camerawork. We barely even glimpse the exotic Istanbul skyline just outside the room’s windows. Djinn shrinks down to human size, puts on a bathrobe, and the two converse like they’re in a capsule episode of White Lotus.
Alithea is a ‘narratologist’, which sounds made up but is a real field that studies stories and the way they affect our perception. When offered her three wishes, Alithea claims she is perfectly content and there is nothing she desires, other than lofty ideals like world peace which Djinn can’t do. So she refuses to wish, meaning Djinn remains bound, and understandably frustrated. The moral thing to do would be to just wish for a cup of coffee, oat milk and a baguette in order to free him. But, no, Alithea is obsessed with stories, so instead of freeing a man imprisoned in a tiny bottle for thousands of years, she wants to chat. I guess it would be hard to resist this. I’d want to hear stories from a hot, 3000-year-old genie too, after the all-night sex I’d wished for.
It does seem smart to structure this movie using the ‘flashback to origin story’ model we’ve become so used to in our fantasy-themed entertainment, and to indulge these scenes with all the visual opulence, quirky comical undertones, and Mad Max energy missing from the hotel room.
According to Djinn, genies in bottles was not a thing 3000 years ago. Djinns were still magical, but free to do what they wanted, which in our Djinn’s first story is to have sex with the Queen of Sheba, whom he calls Sheba because if he doesn’t get a name, neither does she. They were in love until King Solomon came to visit and she waxed off her floor-length leg-hair which she only did for first-date sex. Sheba and Solomon became Old Testament legends, while Djinn was put in a bottle by his rival and tossed into the Red Sea.
Djinn’s next chapter, set in 16th Century Istanbul during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, finds him bound to his first master, a dim-witted fangirl obsessed with a prince. When she doesn’t heed Djinn’s warnings about her impulsive wishes, she ends up dead before making her third wish, which leaves Djinn floating around the palace as an invisible spirit. He seems to feel this was worse than the bottle.
By his final story, Djinn is in the hands of another young woman, now in 19th century Istanbul. This one, Zefir, is smart enough to know the first thing to do with this particular Djinn is hit the sheets, and they fall in love. It’s when she wishes for knowledge of all things that the affair goes off the rails. She turns into Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and Djinn ends up in the ugly glass bottle that Alithea buys.
Djinn claims he kept getting re-trapped in bottles because of his “weakness for women”, which the movie presents as him giving them too much deference when they act unfaithful, stupid or hysterical. Hmm. Anyway, will it be different with Alithea, his first master with freckles?
It does makes sense that Djinn’s stories of passionate love would slowly open up the secretly lonely Alithea, but the lines Swinton is given, and the flatness with which she is directed to deliver them, make her interest in Djinn’s stories come off as more empirical than emotional, so when she finally makes a wish – for Djinn to fall in love with her – it will appear to some as abrupt. We just don’t witness enough love building between these two before we’re taken into a swooning affair complete with naked Idris wrapping what looks like a third scaly leg around naked Tilda.
There is consolation in that everyone involved was smart enough to know not to end here. After taking Djinn back with her to London – in a room service salt shaker – and enjoying a few days of newlywed bliss, Alithea realizes that one can’t make something as intangible as love real by wishing for it, and that this unnatural wish is destroying Djinn. So she wishes him to be free, something she could have done in the first five minutes, but that would have deprived her, and us, of Djinn’s wonderful stories.
Accepting how a narrative wants to manipulate you is necessary to enjoying any story, whether old, new, on page, recited, filmed. When the story asks you to do things like justify abject cruelty or laugh at instead of with, it’s cause for rejection. But all Three Thousand Years of Longing asks us to accept is that the ancient world had amazing production design, and that a single gal can quite suddenly realize she’s horny for Idris Elba, and I’m fine with that.