Pitched as a "fairy tale for adults," "Three Thousand Years of Longing" stars the wondrously eccentric Tilda Swinton as a London academic in Istanbul.
At a bazaar, she picks up a glass bottle that when opened at her hotel, unleashes a hulking djinn -- think genie -- who offers to grant her three wishes.
And since charisma king Idris Elba plays the djinn, you listen. So the film, out Friday, is a modern spin on "Arabian Nights"? Not so fast.
Director George Miller, joining his daughter Augusta Gore to adapt a short story by A.S. Byatt, didn't earn his reputation as a mad genius by taking the easy route. The cinematic genie behind the visceral brutality of "Mad Max: Fury Road," the kid-friendly "Happy Feet" and "Babe: Pig in the City" likes to defy expectations.
As Elba's djinn and Swinton's narratologist Dr. Alithea Binnie (she studies mythic narratives) get comfy in hotel robes and enjoy a deep-dish gabfest about the cautionary aspects of wish-granting, the film lulls us into thinking it's an intimate love story between two bottled-up romantics, which it partly and perceptively is.
But Miller has way more than talk in mind as the djinn -- through the richly resonant tones of Elba's remarkable voice -- takes us on a magic carpet ride across thousands of years and several continents that illustrate what goes on in the life of someone trapped in a bottle.
"Three Thousand Years of Longing" was filmed during the pandemic, which means the stars are mostly confined to a hotel. And when the djinn regales Alithea with parables of his past history with humans over centuries, the film goes wild with CGI visual marvels.
To see a maxi-sized Elba emerge from a small bottle is not an image you'll soon forget. And the wonders continue as the djinn's tales take us to the palace of the Queen of the Sheba and to shadowy dungeons and blood-soaked battlefields. We see a man's head morph into a demon spider and then explode into gazillions of mini-arachnids.
For a wizard of Miller's demonstrated gifts, some of his digital effects are mysteriously unfinished. But Miller's soulful showmanship, laced by the poignant sadness in Elba's performance, is never in doubt. Even when the plot drifts into ditzy slapstick, Miller draws us into the intimate core of his fractured fable.
And that's the relationship between Alithea and her djinn. Alithea knows every trick in the narrative-spinning book. And she's wise to the djinn's tactics. Plus, she is in no hurry to reveal her three wishes which, once granted, will free him from the prison of the whims of others.
No fair spoiling how the romance works out, but Miller, an Australian born to Greek immigrant parents, is unique in film history as a physician who left medicine to practice movie healing. The fusion of the practical and the spiritual finds its way into every fiber of his filmmaking.
"Three Thousand Years of Longing" is all over the place structurally, but odds are you won't be too bothered.
At its best, sizzling on the subtle fire ignited by Swinton and Ebla, this story about storytelling grants every moviegoer's wish for enchantment. There's magic in it.