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'Three Thousand Years of Longing' will leave you charmed — and a little worn out

Tilda Swinton plays a literary scholar and Idris Elba is the Djinn she conjures in <em>Three Thousand Years of Longing</em>.
Festival de Cannes
Tilda Swinton plays a literary scholar and Idris Elba is the Djinn she conjures in Three Thousand Years of Longing.

I've always felt there's something a bit too self-conscious about movies that are explicitly about the magic of storytelling. Really, the best way to pay tribute to storytelling is to simply tell a good story, not rattle on and on about how timeless stories are. That may explain why I felt both mildly charmed and a little worn out by the new movie Three Thousand Years of Longing.

It's adapted from a short story by the English writer A.S. Byatt, and much of it unfolds in an Istanbul hotel room where Idris Elba, taking a page from Scheherazade and her 1,001 nights, regales Tilda Swinton with one fantastical tale after another. Some of these tales are vivid and involving, but what they add up to is less than the sum of its many shimmering parts.

Even still, the movie has its undeniable pleasures. The Australian director George Miller might be best known for his thrilling Mad Max series, but he's always had a flair for fantasy, as he's shown in marvelously inventive films like Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet. In Three Thousand Years of Longing, which he co-wrote with his daughter, Augusta Gore, Miller unveils an outlandish premise with a sly wit that's initially hard to resist.

Tilda Swinton plays Alithea Binney, a modern-day literary scholar who specializes in the study of narratives, the way the same tropes and symbols tend to pop up in stories from different cultures and eras. While attending a conference in Istanbul, Alithea goes shopping in the bazaar and purchases a small glass bottle as a memento.

Later, while she's cleaning the bottle in her hotel room, out in a burst of smoke pops an enormous Djinn, played by Elba. After some amusing awkwardness — how would you react if confronted by a giant otherworldly intruder with hairy blue legs and pointy ears? — the two settle into a long, heady and whimsical conversation. Also, they're both wearing those plush white hotel bathrobes, in the movie's most charming visual.

The Djinn tells Alithea that he was trapped in the bottle roughly three millennia ago by King Solomon. The only way for him to be freed is to grant three wishes to any human who possesses the bottle. You'd think that Alithea would jump at the chance, but being an expert on stories, she knows that wishes have a way of backfiring. And so she refuses to play along.

Alithea has long seemed content with her solitary existence. She was married once but now has no family, and books have provided the only companionship she needs. But as she talks to the Djinn, her long-forgotten desires for love and connection begin to surface. The movie's point seems to be that these desires, or longings, lie at the heart of every great story.

The Djinn knows this firsthand: He tells Alithea about all the women he's fallen for over the centuries, starting with his first great love, the Queen of Sheba. More recently, his bottle fell into the hands of a brilliant 19th-century woman who used her wishes not to acquire power or riches, but rather to gain more knowledge about the world. Their love burned bright for a spell but ended, like the others, in tragedy. This is why the Djinn has never been able to break free; his love for the humans who command him proves his undoing.

Miller dramatizes those stories in vibrant flashbacks decorated with all manner of ornate visual effects; sometimes the results can be garish, but sometimes they're genuinely entrancing. At their best, the Djinn's stories achieve the quality of a great page-turner. But the movie becomes less effective as it raises the possibility of romance between Alithea and the Djinn. Swinton and Elba are both superb and have a sweet, touching chemistry, but they never forge the kind of bond that feels passionate enough to transcend time and space.

The movie tosses off some fascinating ideas in the closing stretch, including the way a Djinn might feel redundant in a world where technology has become its own modern-day magic. But Three Thousand Years of Longing ends on a muted, uncertain note. It left me faintly curious about what might happen next, which is not quite the same thing as wanting more.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.