Producers: Doug Mitchell and George Miller   Director: George Miller   Screenplay: George Miller and Augusta Gore   Cast: Idris Elba, Tilda Swinton, Aamito Lagum, Nicolas Mouawad, Ece Yüksel, Matteo Bocelli, Lachy Hulme, Megan Gale, Zerrin Tekindor, Oğulcan Arman Uslu, Jack Braddy, Burcu Gölgedar, Kaan Guldur, Hugo Vella, Pia Thunderbolt, Anna Adams, David Collins, Angie Tricker, Anthony Moisset, and Ece Yüksel    Distributor: United Artists/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Grade: C+

Adapting A.S. Byatt’s novella “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” published in her 1997 collection of the same name, George Miller and his daughter Augusta Gore have necessarily simplified the original’s multi-layered, densely allusive form, reducing it to a fantastical but fairly straightforward rumination on the nature of storytelling, the gloom of loneliness, and the soul-affirming power of love.  The result, retitled “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” possesses an eye-catching, if artificial, visual palette, but doesn’t achieve the magical quality it’s aiming for.

The central character remains a self-styled narratologist, an academic specializing in the nature of storytelling.  In Byatt her name was Gillian Perholt, but here it’s Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton).  She’s a prim, standoffish woman who’s come to Istanbul to participate in a conference where she engages in a public back-and-forth with a colleague in which she distinguishes between mythology, the way in which humans once expressed their understanding of the world (now relegated to the realm of cartoon superheroes), and the modern, fact-based scientific mode of storytelling.  In the course of the quasi-debate, she’s so startled when a tall, white-robed ancient figure appears in the audience, jumping from seat to seat, that she faints.  But her indisposition passes quickly, and the next day she visits a shop where, amid odds and ends, she finds a strange little bottle that attracts her interest.  She buys it and returns to her hotel room.

Washing off the bottle, she’s shocked when it oozes out a great plume of smoke that morphs into a huge djinn (Idris Elba), who eventually shrinks to human size and offers the traditional three wishes.  Knowing how badly such situations ordinarily turn out for the wishers, Alithea declines, causing the djinn considerable consternation: granting someone the wishes is his only hope for escaping captivity, and he urges her to ask for her “heart’s desire.” But she resists.  That leads to his telling her of his millennia-long confinement, which involves reciting three tales of love, loss and loneliness, each accompanied by phantasmagorical flashbacks marked by weird, often grotesque imagery.  The obvious comparison is to the Thousand and One Nights, as a sign alluding to Scheherazade near the start of the film indicates.

The first tale involves the djinn’s human infatuation with his mistress the Queen of Sheeba (Aamito Lagum), whose seduction by King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) incites his jealousy.  (The crowd watching Solomon perform on his peculiar stringed instrument before the queen includes the white-robed figure Alithea encountered during her lecture.)  That leads Solomon to encase the djinn in a bottle which he flings across the sea.

It is discovered only in Ottoman times, when the djinn is embroiled, as a byproduct of his service to an ambitious slave girl named Gulten (Ece Yüksel), in machinations by the sultan (Lachy Hulme) that pit two brothers, the betrayed and morose warrior Mustafa (Matteo Bocelli) and the obese, childlike Ibrahim (Jack Braddy), in a contest over the throne—a story also including a series of storytellers and a gaggle of plus-sized courtesans, one called Sugar Lump (Anna Adams), whose intervention ruins the djinn’s hope for liberation. 

Again returned to captivity, the djinn becomes, in the third tale, the servant of Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), a young wife to an old man, whose thirst for all knowledge is the catalyst for a close relationship—until her obsession turns against him and leads to his last incarceration, now broken by Alithea.

Each of the djinn’s stories points up his desire to escape solitude through love, and each is depicted through a plethora of eye-catching, frequently provocative, visual effects, rendered under the supervision of Pal Butterworth in a hazy style that leaves the images both synthetic and mesmerizing.  His contributions are melded nicely with Roger Ford’s exotic production design and Kym Barrett’s equally luxurious costumes, all captured beautifully in John Seale’s luminous cinematography.  The score by Tom Holkenborg adds to the otherworldly mood. 

But the djinn-narrated flashbacks are only part of the film; much of the running-time is devoted to conversation between him and Alithea, in which details of her past emerge alongside his and she is gradually led to apply the lessons of his stories to her own life.  The result is a very talky film, and largely a two-hander.  But given that the stream of dialogue is derived from a writer of Byatt’s skill and delivered by actors of the quality of Elba and Swinton, it goes down relatively easily, even if Margaret Sixel’s editing paces everything very solemnly.

The three millennia of the title don’t end in the Istanbul hotel room where the colloquy between the djinn and Alithea occurs, however.  The story extends to her home in London, where the djinn becomes her houseguest despite the nattering of the bigoted old biddies who are her neighbors—and an unexpected obstacle to the odd couple’s untrammeled happiness.  Even it, however, cannot entirely undo the companionship both have longed for.

That ending takes a turn meant to put a final exclamation point to the film’s magical quality, but comes across more like a feeble gesture instead.  It’s a rather half-hearted ending to an effort Miller intends as an enthralling intellectual and emotional puzzle, but winds up being merely amusingly daft.

Nonetheless “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a visually stimulating showcase for two accomplished actors and an expert production team, and if the idea behind it attracts you, try to experience it on the largest screen you can find.  Whatever its failings, it cries out to be watched in a theatre, not your living room.