The Whimsical, Intellectual Chemistry of Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton

Three Thousand Years of Longing gives the genie-in-a-bottle formula a fresh update and a deeply romantic spin.

Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton standing in a doorway in "Three Thousand Years of Longing"
MGM via Everett

George Miller’s 2015 insta-classic Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most propulsive movies ever made. It tracks a caravan of souped-up vehicles blasting across the desert in a glorious postapocalyptic battle. His follow-up is, on the surface, quite the opposite. Three Thousand Years of Longing is primarily focused on a long conversation between two characters wearing bathrobes in a fancy Turkish hotel room. But that first impression sells the film short. Miller’s latest work, about an introverted professor (played by Tilda Swinton) and the djinn she accidentally summons to her room (Idris Elba), is an intimate romance—one that sacrifices none of Miller’s glorious maximalism.

The film, based on a short story by A. S. Byatt, is a piece of magical realism that has a lot in common with Miller’s fanciful works, such as The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City. Miller’s constant strength is his sense of wonder—he can conjure up the most unexpected spins on familiar iconography and expressions. Three Thousand Years of Longing makes use of the hoary adage Be careful what you wish for as an insistent genie demands that his summoner pour out her heart’s desires to him. But Miller quickly transforms that dynamic into an intriguing exchange of intellects: The djinn and the academic match wits, and their conversational dance melts into deeper passion.

The professor character, Alithea Binnie, specializes in narratology, the study of story structure. After she frees the djinn, who has been imprisoned for millennia with only brief sojourns into the real world, she worries about all the wish-giver plot clichés—that he’s a powerful being simply looking for his freedom or a trickster eager to bend her every word against her. But though the djinn is a commanding figure (Elba’s performance is suave and worldly), his motives are sweetly tender. He wants only to help Alithea find happiness. She claims she’s already content in her solitary state, a point she perhaps protests a little too much.

Both characters are avid storytellers, and the film soon dives into the genie’s best tales, some of which can be traced back to antiquity. At various points, he encountered the Queen of Sheba (a stunning Aamito Lagum); the Ottoman prince Mustafa, son of Suleiman (Matteo Bocelli); and a 19th-century Turkish genius named Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar). In every case, the djinn tried to enrich those wishers’ lives, and in every case, his efforts went in winding, unpredictable directions, often leading to tragedy. Many of the parables are about corruption, and the djinn’s lamp certainly lends its owner a dangerous level of power. Throughout the film, Miller looks at how indulging our wants can be equally satisfying and destructive.

Alithea is an interesting challenge for the djinn—she truly thinks of herself as a woman without major desires, whose academic career is successful enough to compensate for any shortcomings in her personal life. Swinton often plays authoritative enigmas with aplomb, but here, she has to be the djinn’s flustered foil, meekly dodging his efforts to crack her emotional force field. Elba, who frequently projects toughness or villainy on-screen, gets to be fish-out-of-water funny with bouts of melancholy. The djinn has been romantically entangled with some of his summoners in the past, but despite the air of heartbreak, Elba plays his character as cheerfully indefatigable.

Miller renders each historical period in rich, saturated colors. Even with CGI embellishments, the film looks like a charming throwback to Hollywood’s straightforward epics, whose grand sets and brassy performances were enough to transport an audience to a different era. Some of the oddball humor in these vignettes lands thuddingly. (One particularly slapstick substory about a wastrel prince clangs against the setting’s romanticism.) The hotel scenes, however, are surprisingly delightful, such as when the djinn browses TV channels with bafflement or crowds entire rooms by growing to a colossal size.

The laughs and anecdotes shared in the hotel are enchanting, but Three Thousand Years of Longing lives and dies by its final mundane act, when the djinn and Alithea return to London and try to navigate their cosmic partnership in the larger modern world. This is where Miller’s screenplay, co-written by Augusta Gore, gets didactic, assessing the crushing foibles of contemporary existence. Thankfully, Elba and Swinton convey such a human bond that the story stays exciting even as the message gets more bold-faced. That’s why Three Thousand Years of Longing succeeds: For all the film’s sprawling movements across history, the small-scale love story at its core is what makes it as arresting as Miller’s loudest hits.