It started with an electric toothbrush.
Throughout Three Thousand Years of Longing, viewers will witness Solomon woo the Queen of Sheba with an instrument that plays itself. They will watch a young woman caught in a dispute between Suleiman the Magnificent and his son Prince Mustafa. They’ll witness a merchant’s wife invent spectacular flying machines in 19th-century Turkey.
But it all begins when literature professor Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) uses her electric toothbrush to clean off a bottle she bought from an Istanbul merchant. The buzzing of the toothbrush gives way to explosions as the bottle begins to spin and shake, releasing plumes of violet smoke that fill the bathroom. From that mundane act, Alithea has released a magical being: The Djinn (Idris Elba).
This mix of the mundane and magical that director George Miller brings to his adaptation of A.S. Byatt's short story may disappoint some. As often as the movie takes fantastic flights of fancy—all enhanced by the maximalist style Miller brought to previous films such as Mad Max: Fury Road—it always comes back to a conversation in a hotel room. In that room,The Djinn reveals that his centuries of confinement can finally end after he grants Alithea her three wishes. Simple enough, right?
Well, not so much. As an expert in stories, Alithea knows all the narratives about The Djinn and other magical creatures. And as she states, "There is no story about wishing that does not become a cautionary tale." What’s more, Alithea insists that she longs for nothing. Happy living alone and devoting herself to her work, she experiences no great lack, no missing element that The Djinn can fill.
The first two acts of Three Thousand Years of Longing consist of The Djinn trying to convince Alithea to admit her heart’s desire and wish for it, while Alithea refuses to engage. To make his case, The Djinn tells the stories of his services to three previous humans, each of which ends with his imprisonment. The first features the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), who falls so deeply in love with King Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) that she enables him to capture The Djinn. In the second, The Djinn serves Gülten (Ece Yüksel), a concubine who dies when her lover Mustafa (Matteo Bocelli) is killed by his father Suleiman (Lachy Hulme). The last pairs The Djinn with Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), a Turkish woman who wishes for knowledge unavailable to a neglected merchant’s wife.
Each of these stories hinges upon The Djinn's deep love for the women he serves, which Miller and cinematographer John Seale visualize with rich and lavish imagery. The Djinn helps Zefir learn by bringing her books that he dissolves into puddles of melted glass, which then reform into bottles. The swirling colors and shifting textures as books and bottles change shapes powerfully represent the ecstasy of education. Gülten visits Mustafa at a sumptuous party, in which jugglers and tumblers and fire-eaters perform simultaneously around the room, their feats only enhanced by the ornate furniture and guests surrounding them.
More than a directorial flourish, these visuals serve the movie's theme. The Djinn is a hopelessly romantic creature, who longs only to serve and be loved. In a performance that remains intricate and subtle despite marshaling all of his considerable charisma, Elba plays The Djinn as a sensitive soul both hurt by his past rejections and desperate in his need to woo Alithea. Against every piece of analysis Alithea sets up as a barrier, The Djinn continues to strive with wells of emotion.
Each of these stories hinges upon The Djinn's deep love for the women he serves.
From that description, it may sound like Three Thousand Years of Longing makes a distinction between the mundane contemporary world and the magical past. Such a perspective may resonate with some Christians, who might feel the same dichotomy when they read scripture. The Bible is full of amazing stories, of global floods and kindly ravens, of earthquake jailbreaks and transfigurations. It’s easy to look at the stories of God’s ancient people and the first church and wonder why Christians today don’t get to raise the dead or debate demon-possessed vagrants. Like Alithea listening to The Djinn, we may find stories of past adventure compelling, but ultimately irrelevant to our lived experience.
But that assumption misreads the movie as much as it misreads scripture. Leaving aside the fact that she meets The Djinn in a spectacular place (her luxury hotel room in Istanbul, "the Agatha Christie Room," is far nicer than the Motel 6s I usually stay in), Alithea bears witness to plenty of magic. Before she releases The Djinn, mystical creatures accost her at the airport and the conference she attends, each visualized with a soft glow around their sharpened features. As a child, Alithea manifested an imaginary friend, who appears on screen as a cartoon doodle on yellow, lined paper. Magic surrounds Alithea, but she refuses to accept the thing that The Djinn tries to call forth, her true heart’s desire: love.
As exciting as Bible adventures certainly can be, scripture makes it plain that all of these are subservient to love. Paul states that directly in 1 Corinthians 13, where he declares, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
That idea drives even the many fantastic feats performed by Jesus and the disciples. When Jesus heals a woman “subject to bleeding,” he does it out of love for a rejected person. When the Holy Spirit gives the apostles the gift of tongues at Pentecost, they’re able to show love to people from many different nations. Again and again, the Bible echoes what Paul says later in 1 Corinthians 13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
As dazzling as The Djinn’s stories certainly are, they all come from a place of love. And with that love, even an electric toothbrush becomes a magic wand.