Three Thousand Years of Longing review: Time well spent with Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba

·2-min read
Three Thousand Years of Longing review: Time well spent with Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba

In this phantasmagorical romance, Idris Elba plays a genie who offers a Northern, middle-aged academic three wishes.

Though given Elba’s survival thriller Beast is underperforming at the global box office and this film - George ‘Mad Max’ Miller’s adaptation of a 1994 AS Byatt novella - just tanked in the US, he may be wishing a genie would make him the lead in a film that people wanted to see.

The fact is, though, that Miller’s opus (unlike Beast) is worth your time. Maybe not 3,000 years, but most definitely 108 minutes.

Tilda Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a scholar of story and mythology who is in Istanbul for a conference. But plagued by apparitions, she can barely concentrate on giving a talk about how the popularity of Marvel and MCU characters demonstrates the enduring power of gods and monsters (a meta touch, since Elba’s Heimdall is, of course, a member of the MCU).

Before long, she has unleashed a pointy-eared genie/djinn from a bottle and, in her sterile hotel room, is asking the creature all sorts of awkward questions. Her job has taught her that wishes should not be made in haste. And life has taught her that love hurts. Instead of telling the djinn her heart’s desire, she gets him to open up.

Tilda Swinton plays no-nonsense academic Alithea Binnie (Elise Lockwood)
Tilda Swinton plays no-nonsense academic Alithea Binnie (Elise Lockwood)

His stories prove fabulous. Brought to life with oodles of CGI, they touch on everything from lipophilia (fat festishism) to the Queen of Sheba’s attractively hairy legs. Said yarns, by the way, are also full of pent-up emotion. By his own admission, the djinn is terrible at communication, especially with mortal women. Impetuous, insecure and borderline masochistic, he self-sabotages at every turn, dooming himself to a monk-like existence. It is truly moving when he discovers a soul-mate who knows all about solitude.

Elba is great as the hopelessly romantic immortal. Swinton’s even better as the no-nonsense human hiding a tender core. Alithea has no desire to appear “young” and certainly doesn’t want to be viewed as cute. But, damn, she’s cute. In case you didn’t know, Swinton and Tom Cruise are roughly the same age. Three Thousand Years of Longing is the anti-Top Gun 2, yet both films swivel on the sexiness of a sexagenarian.

Is a bit of me sad that a writer-director like Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t get to adapt Byatt’s story? Yes. Miller jettisons so much about what makes the novella extraordinary, including a passionate consummation, as well as the protagonist’s feelings of shame regarding a sexual assault that took place when she was young.

Worse, via a series of last-act scenes that long to be zeitgeisty, the legendary 77-year-old director adds unnecessary clutter. Gyllenhaal, with The Lost Daughter, captured the essence of author Elena Ferrante. Miller has made a memorable movie, but he hasn’t bottled Byatt.

In cinemas now