Stories are made of history. Fiction contains – sometimes more, sometimes less – something that is historically authentic, because it comes from human brains that copy, interpret and rearrange what has been experienced. The narratologist Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), whose complicated name and job title already anticipate the image of the odd, bespectacled spinster with academic expertise, researches this interaction: She examines myths. The lectures with which she travels around the world as a lecturer on narrative theory deal with the truth content of legends and sagas.
When Alithea takes a dingy but elegantly curved glass jar from a bazaar to her hotel room on a business trip to Istanbul, she experiences the literal meaning of “letting the genie out of the bottle”. When she tries to clean the worst of the bottle with her electric toothbrush, the stopper falls into the sink.
And it appears – with appropriate smoke and fire fuss – someone who could verify the stories she loves: Due to his immortality, the giant Djinn (Idris Elba), who suddenly stands in her hotel room, is a kind of contemporary witness. Of course, the friendly demon has three wishes in his luggage that he has to fulfill to Alithea – otherwise he faces being forced to return to the boring bottle existence. But to do that, the self-sufficient woman would first have to find out what she desires…
Mad Max director George Miller crosses over twenty years into Three Thousand Years of Longing, his adaptation of a short story by British author A.S. Byatt the chamber play with the fantasy genre. Its starting point is the approach of two lonely beings – the curious narratologist and the genie who has been starving in the bottle for centuries. Following the classic Scheherazade pattern, the two tell each other their adventures. The djinn, who adapts in size to the hotel room designed for humanoids, and from then on crouches obediently in a white bathrobe and with frayed ears next to the scientist, who is also wrapped in terry cloth, naturally has a little more to report.
His anecdotes, which Miller stages in a sensual fantasy aesthetic with a bit of “Witcher” flair as flashbacks reaching far into the past, are about the beautiful Queen of Sheba, with whom not only Solomon but also the Djinn had a deep crush; of Sultan Süleyman’s son and his fondness for overweight women; by the regent Murad IV; and by a gifted inventor named Zefir.
It is a mythological-historical conversation at eye level, because Alithea, who suffers from hallucinations, is of course familiar with the myths – at least the passages that the historians have passed on. But they don’t always turn out to be factual. Solomon went to see the Queen of Sheba, says the Djinn. No, she came to him, Alithea corrects, and refers to painting motifs and Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. “I was there, my lady,” the Djinn, played by Elba with an amusing mixture of devotion and otherworldly exoticism, drily interjects.
With such opulent fantasies and dönekens, Miller and co-author (and daughter) Augusta Gore work through the original function of storytelling, which also forms the basis of filmmaking. On the other hand, Miller places love at the center of his cross-cultural plot: Desiring nothing and nobody, djinnsplaint the wise spirit, who has experienced longing for 3000 years, tells his new acquaintance that it is actually impossible.
Miller places his dramaturgy far away from the action narratives he is used to and stages the bold, impressively animated mini-epics more contemplative than compelling. If there were a destiny, Alithea muses, can we escape it? Such philosophical questions, or even the realization that “we only exist if others believe in us”, are given truthfulness through Tilda Swinton’s play with the enchanting Djinn.
It is her self-determined charm that protects her character from the misogynist cliché of the old maid – and irons out overly picturesque postcard wisdom. Whether that saves the djinn from the bottle exile, however, is another story.