I don’t like fantasy as a movie genre and I don’t much like magical realism in literature. 3000 Years of Longing is a take on the old genie-in-a-bottle theme from Arabian literary culture, but I liked it a lot despite all the fantasy and magic.
It’s a bit hard to say what genre it fits. Comparisons are of only limited use but with something as original as this the best comparison I could come up with was 2001: A Space Odyssey, because like that cinematic masterpiece, 3000 Years of Longing draws together separate narrative threads and themes across several millennia, employing dazzling special effects along the way to say something about that staple of all art forms, the human condition. I suppose you would call it an adult fairytale with romcom elements.
Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a ‘narratologist’ – a scholar whose life work is the study of myths and stories from all human cultures. Her voiceover at the start tells us that she’s going to relate her encounter with a real-life genie, or djinn, in the form of a fairytale because otherwise we wouldn’t believe her. She has difficulty believing it herself, at first.
And so she starts with the time-honoured formula. Once upon a time, she says, she went to a conference of narratologists in Istanbul. She has some strange and scary visions on the way, one of which causes her to faint on stage during a lecture, but although her mental world is peopled by goblins and fairies and sprites and suchlike mythical creatures, she’s a rational thinker and brushes off the concerns of her colleagues by attributing this wobbly to overwork.
Then, from the bottom of a musty pile of stuff in the darkest and backmost of three backrooms in one of several shops in one of many backstreets in the Grand Bazaar where, she tells us, there are 3000 such shops, she finds a pretty glass bottle with a blue spiral pattern. Her companion and even the merchant urge her to choose something else but no; even though it’s wonky and fire-damaged, this is the one she wants.
She takes it back to her hotel and gives it a bit of a scrub with a toothbrush, which dislodges the stopper and sure enough, out pops a djinn (Idris Elba) who naturally wants to grant her three wishes. She professes not to need or want anything, but he insists she must let him grant her heart’s desire, otherwise he’ll be condemned to that damned bottle or something like it for another however many centuries, desperately waiting for some accidental discoverer to release him to roam the world as a free spirit, which is his heart’s desire.
He’s up against it with Alithea. It’s not only her lack of neediness, but as she reminds him, in all such stories no good ever comes of the granting of three wishes. He knows this only too well, but professes to have worked out what went wrong in all his previous encounters with mortals, or to be precise – beautiful mortal ladies, he being an incurable romantic.
The rest of the movie consists mostly of fabulous, fantastic flashbacks full of colour and movement and music and blood and war as the djinn tells Alithea his tales in an effort to get her onboard with his project, as it were. She’s a willing listener, and a curious one, occasionally interrupting him to ask for practical details such as how do you pass the time trapped in a bottle for centuries at a time? What do djinns talk about when they meet up? They compare notes about life, love, loss and families; she’s fascinated to learn that djinns can father children by mortal women, and a bit skeptical when he insists that it was King Solomon who courted the Queen of Sheba, not the other way round as per the official version. He wins that one – he was there, after all.
3000 years of longing, 3000 shops in the Grand Bazaar – spooky synchronicities abound! Alethea’s leg jigs restlessly as she works on her laptop on the plane; one of the djinn’s lovers has the same tic. The camera closes in on the throat of the Queen of Sheba who swallows at the very moment she falls in love with King Solomon; we get a similar close-up of Alethea’s gullet when she makes an emotionally momentous decision about her djinn.
What does it all mean? I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, but I wasn’t sure about 2001 either when I first saw it and I’m still working on it, still enjoying the thinking processes it inspires. It’s the same here: 3000 Years of Longing says some pithy things about life, love and human foibles with humour and warmth, and manages to signal modern virtue without inducing an eye-roll (personal foible on show here). Quite apart from which it’s a wonderful exercise in sheer cinematic spectacle.