Where Miller’s reputation for visual panache comes into play is the recounting of the Djinn’s long, turbulent, and often lonely life, as he first loses the great love of his life, is sealed in his bottle by the man who claims her, and is then freed and recaptured repeatedly in different cities, in different countries, and at different times throughout the ancient Middle East.
The three main stories that the Djinn shares with Alithea all involve his attempts to help women, and all are drenched in luscious, colorful, and frequently bizarre details that both accentuate the mythological aura of the Djinn’s experiences as well as the rich emotion bursting within them – the latter an aspect that the academic, buttoned-up Alithea has overlooked in her own studies. Although the visual splendor is surprisingly taken down a peg by some subpar CG work (a disappointment coming from Miller), the stories themselves are captivating, as is the Djinn’s telling of them.
Eventually the movie settles into how the narratives of Alithea and the Djinn ultimately intertwine, at first through their shared love of storytelling. But it’s in the latter stages where the movie falters, the sweep of the previous tales that the Djinn spins giving way to a more prosaic and thematically hazy ending that seems almost if the film just stops rather than coming to a climax.
Still, while its technical weaknesses and those latter-stage narrative letdowns prevent Three Thousand Years of Longing from being perhaps the great, visionary film we’d all like to see from Miller, there are enough pleasures here – in the performances, the stories, and the movie’s ambition — to keep one interested most of the way through its leisurely-paced 108 minutes.
Chief among those are Elba and Swinton, of course. Elba powerfully conveys the anguish, loneliness, and occasional ecstasy of the Djinn’s long and often painfully lonely life, his natural presence working well with some choice visual effects to enhance the character’s supernatural existence while also never forgetting to emphasize the humanity and romance in his heart.
Swinton has, in some ways, the more difficult role: she is the foil and occasional naysayer to the Djinn’s flights of storytelling fancy, and Alithea by design is the harder character to warm up to – but one eventually does, thanks to her skillful work and the way that the movie gently peels back her exterior armor to reveal the wounded, deeply loving person inside.