Do you really, really like stories?
It's probably a requirement for enjoying "Three Thousand Years of Longing," in which a key character is a narratologist played by Tilda Swinton (it means she's interested in stories and why we tell them). She's speaking at a conference similar to a couple I've attended in order to see my professor cousin present papers. In fact, those conferences — where smart people gather to discuss literature — seem like the ideal place for "Three Thousand Years," in which a professor insists that "stories were once the only way to make sense of our bewildering existence."
Initially, "bewildered" is not a word you'd use to describe Alithea (Swinton), who is so confident and controlled that she proceeds with a lecture even when she's in the middle of passing out. When she wakes, she's visited by a djinn (Idris Elba), who pledges to grant her three wishes. Being an expert on fairy tales, Alithea knows those wishes can backfire but, as she prods the djinn to tell his story and provide some context, she begins to question her life choices. She wonders if she has really lived her life and, because Elba is standing in front of her in a bathrobe, she begins to fall in love.
"Three Thousand Years of Longing" is directed by George Miller. It's nothing like his "Mad Max" movies except that it has a confidence that we will follow it into whatever crazy corners its stories-within-fables-within-tales wish to take us. There are little clues everywhere, such as the djinn telling Alithea that three is a very strong number, just before we learn he has appeared before her in her hotel room, which is number 333. It's also the "Agatha Christie Room," speaking of people who know how to tell a story.
Although Alithea is the character put to the test in "Three Thousand Years," the larger role is the djinn. Swinton is funny as the sort of acerbic, self-assured person she often plays but Elba has never done anything like this. He makes his character calm but passionate, decent but also daring. There's a sense the djinn has learned how to calibrate his behavior to whomever summons him, so we get one version of him in his interactions with Alithea — a version who seems like serious boyfriend material, even if he does live in a bottle — but different versions in flashbacks that show him granting wishes of a series of shortsighted people.
This is probably the place to say I loved "Three Thousand Years," even as I remained aware I'm destined to be part of a small group. There's a strong metaphysical bent to the movie, which questions the nature of love and whether stories help us understand our lives or distract us from them. And Miller clearly loves depicting ancient civilizations, showing us how the djinn has fared in previous manifestations.
Along the way, Alithea learns something useful from the djinn's stories, which seem tailored to allow her to find herself in them — kind of like movies — and which finally help her figure out who she is.
'Three Thousand Years of Longing'
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: R for nudity and violence.
Where: In theaters.