During a lecture Alithea faints after a hallucination. We are to ask, later, whether it was a hallucination or something ancient and real calling to her. Back in her hotel room, she tries to scrub off an ornamental bottle she picked up at an antique shop. And yes, she unleashes a genie, or djinn, and a giant one at that—the sight of his enormous foot opening her bathroom door is something unusual to be sure—who, upon learning some English, proffers Alithea the standard three wishes. As played by Idris Elba, the djinn is a figure grave, funny, absurd, and moving.
As for those wishes: not so fast. As a narratologist, Alithea knows that a djinn is one gift horse worth looking in the mouth. The wish-fulfillment narratives involving genies famously never work out—either due to the stupidity/venality of the wisher or, more pertinent to Alithea, the fact that genies are notorious tricksters. There’s a reason they end up trapped in bottles, after all. And so, rather than a wish-fulfillment journey, Alithea begins an interrogation.
The djinn’s first tale sets the tone and pace for the rest of the movie. He was a consort, or so he claims, and teacher to the famed Queen of Sheba (“She was not beautiful. She was beauty itself,” the Djinn avers, and in the form of actress Aamito Lagum, she indeed is), until that wily Solomon came along. Even the elaborate tableaux of Cecil B. DeMille aren’t sufficient preparation for the production design and CGI-driven phantasmagoria of this tale, which features, among other things, a kind of self-playing lyre, the better to augment the song of Solomon that seduces Sheba.
As it turns out, over the centuries, it’s always a woman who’s responsible for the djinn’s captivity, but this is not a nesting-doll tale of misogyny. (It is adapted, very loosely, from a novella by renowned British writer A.S. Byatt.) It’s more a chronicle of how love and hate can make one do funny things. And about the paradox of being human, our intrepid selves and our shadow selves. So much human achievement is depicted here, and so much human atrocity. As is observed near the end of the picture, “Despite all the whiz-bang, we remain befuddled.”