Three Thousand Years of Longing

Bristol Everyman
The lovely Bristol Everyman has added a fourth cinema. It's very small (seats about thirty five) but has flowery sofas and a very decent size screen. The smallness of the room means that the sound system is wondrous; all those modern effects when sounds from the back of the room seem to come from the back of the room are a lot more convincing than they would be in the bigger screens. We've come a long way from the 1970s where fleapits were splitting in three and Screen Three was hardly bigger than your TV set. And TV sets weren't nearly as big back then.

The point of movies is to be Entertaining, and it is probably unreasonable to describe certain filums as Romps or Entertainments. (As opposed to what? Morally improving? Boring? Or even dare we say it Art House? I have never consciously seen a work by Jean-Luc Goddard.)

Three Thousand Years of Longing is, essentially, a Very Good Story. Which, since it has a strong streak of the Neil-Gaiman "power of story" philosophy running through it is probably as much of a point as it needs to have. It's a riff on the Arabian Nights, both Thief of Baghdad Hollywood versions, and more authentic Bollywood treatments. In places it looks and feels like a less unhinged version of Peter Greenaway.

Tilda Swinton, for it is she, is Alithea Binnie an academic who lectures in Narratology. The scientific theory of stories. I don't think her internationally renowned audience would have been all that surprised to find out that she thinks that mythology was what people used to explain the world before science came up with better stories, or that superhero movies are a modern form of hero myth, but we get the point. She's rational and a little world weary and very skeptical about the stuff she studies. Giving a lecture in modern Turkey, she buys a small antique bottle from Istanbul market and when she tries to clean it in her hotel room, she (of course) releases a bona fide Djinn, played by Idris "not Doctor Who after all" Elba.

Was the word "Genie" simply a western corruption of "Djinn" or was there some notion that magic lanterns and bottles might be inhabited by Geniuses? I seem to think "Daemon" was synonymous with "Genius" at one stage.

The Djinn gives her three wishes and states the rules up-front: no wishing for more wishes; no wishing for eternal life; no changing human nature. It also turns out that in this version of the story the wishes bind the Djinn to the mortal: he's not free until Alithea has named her desire. Which is a problem, because Alithea claims to be perfectly content with her life; and she's read enough mythology to know that stories about wishes always end badly. So they are at an impasse.

The Djinn tells the narratologist three stories about his life: one at the time of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; one in the Ottoman Empire; and one in the nineteenth century. These are intended to explain how he came to be in the bottle, and to persuade Alithea to free him. The stories within the story are told with a lot of visual panache and some rather camp theatrics. They are entertaining in their own right, but I think the audience wants to get back to the core situation in the hotel room. I could willingly have believed that the movie was adapted from a two-handed play in which the Djinn simply narrated the fantasy action to Alithea although this appears not to be true.

Both principles treat the mythical premise with complete conviction Tilda Swinton is non-plussed but not incredulous when a being out of a story manifests in her bedroom. She applies her scientific understanding of narrative to the situation -- quoting a bad joke to the Djinn to show why stories about wishes never end happily. (He has heard it before.) But she gradually becomes personally involved in her visitors situation. We fully believe in Idris Elba as a fairy tale creature but also as a non human being with his own personhood, When we are asked to imagine what it would be like for a being who doesn't sleep to be imprisoned in a bottle at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of years, it's genuinely rather chilling.

It works as a love story in which a scientist falls in love with a Djinn, but it avoids any trite or obvious solution. No-one becomes mortal, and no-one turns into a djinn. One of the stories-within-the-story turns on the riddle about What Women All Desire, but no-one answers the question. (Alithea, despite her narratology, appears not to have read the Wife of Bath's Tale.) The story about stories is itself framed as a story, and ends with Alithea writing about her experiences in an illustrated children's book; but there is no suggestion that she imagined the whole thing or that she rewrote it with a happy ending.

It's basically a sumptuous narrative construct and it works.


Andrew Ducker said...

Yoiu'll be delighted to hear that...

Clarrie said...

It's a little bit more (less?) complicated than wikipedia makes it seem too though. The arabic male form of djinn is... Jinni (female is jiniya).

I'm glad you liked 3000 Years of Longing. Seeing it at the Everyman (screen 3 for us I think) was maybe my favourite cinema experience of 2022, and the first time I've been won over by a 'the real power is love and stories!' plotline in years.