DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new fantasy film "Three Thousand Years Of Longing," Tilda Swinton plays a literary scholar who has an encounter with a wish-granting genie, or djinn, played by Idris Elba. It's the first movie directed by George Miller since "Mad Max: Fury Road," and it opens this week in theaters. Our critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I've always felt there's something a bit too self-conscious about movies that are explicitly about the magic of storytelling. Really, the best way to pay tribute to storytelling is to simply tell a good story, not to rattle on and on about how timeless stories are. That may explain why I felt both mildly charmed and a little worn out by the new movie "Three Thousand Years Of Longing." It's adapted from a short story by the English writer A.S. Byatt, and much of it unfolds in an Istanbul hotel room where Idris Elba, taking a page from Scheherazade and her "Thousand And One Nights," regales Tilda Swinton with one fantastical tale after another. Some of these tales are vivid and involving, but what they add up to is less than the sum of its many shimmering parts. Even still, the movie has its undeniable pleasures. The Australian director George Miller might be best known for his thrilling "Mad Max" series, but he's always had a flair for fantasy, as he's shown in marvellously inventive films like "Babe: Pig In The City" and "Happy Feet." In "Three Thousand Years Of Longing," which he co-wrote with his daughter, Augusta Gore, Miller unveils an outlandish premise with a sly wit that's initially hard to resist.
Tilda Swinton plays Alithea Binnie, a modern-day literary scholar who specializes in the study of narratives - the way the same tropes and symbols tend to pop up in stories from different cultures and eras. While attending a conference in Istanbul, Alithea goes shopping in the bazaar and purchases a small glass bottle as a memento. Later, while she's cleaning the bottle in her hotel room, out in a burst of smoke pops an enormous djinn played by Idris Elba. After some amusing awkwardness - how would you react if confronted by a giant, otherworldly intruder with hairy blue legs and pointy ears? - the two settle into a long, heady and whimsical conversation. Also they're both wearing those plush white hotel bathrobes in the movie's most charming visual. The djinn tells Alithea that he was trapped in the bottle roughly three millennia ago by King Solomon. The only way for him to be freed is to grant three wishes to any human who possesses the bottle. You'd think that Alithea would jump at the chance, but being an expert on stories, she knows that wishes have a way of backfiring. And so she refuses to play along.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING")
IDRIS ELBA: (As The Djinn) You mock me.
TILDA SWINTON: (As Alithea Binnie) Three wishes - perfectly simple and theoretically safe.
ELBA: (As The Djinn) I was imprisoned by Solomon precisely because I cried out my heart's desire. Only by granting you yours may I earn my release.
SWINTON: (As Alithea Binnie) Yes. Well, I appreciate the symmetry, but the thing is this - I cannot for the life of me summon up one eligible wish. And you are asking me for three.
ELBA: (As The Djinn) Is there any life in you? Are you even alive?
SWINTON: (As Alithea Binnie) You know, in some cultures, absence of desire means enlightenment.
ELBA: (As The Djinn) Then you are a pious fool.
SWINTON: (As Alithea Binnie) If I'm content, why tempt fate?
ELBA: (As The Djinn) And you're a coward.
SWINTON: (As Alithea Binnie) Don't goad me.
ELBA: (As The Djinn) There is no human, no angel, no djinn that wouldn't grasp the chance to fulfill their deepest longings. And I am saddled with the one who claims to want nothing at all. Alithea Binnie, you are a liar.
CHANG: Alithea has long seemed content with her solitary existence. She was married once, but now has no family, and books have provided the only companionship she needs. But as she talks to the djinn, her long-forgotten desires for love and connection begin to surface. The movie's point seems to be that these desires or longings lie at the heart of every great story. The Djinn knows this firsthand. He tells Alithea about all the women he's fallen for over the centuries, starting with his first great love, the queen of Sheba. More recently, his bottle fell into the hands of a brilliant 19th-century woman who used her wishes not to acquire power or riches but rather to gain more knowledge about the world. Their love burned bright for a spell but ended like the others - in tragedy. This is why The Djinn has never been able to break free. His love for the humans who command him proves his undoing.
Miller dramatizes those stories in vibrant flashbacks, decorated with all manner of ornate visual effects. Sometimes the results can be garish, but sometimes, they're genuinely entrancing. At their best, The Djinn's stories achieve the quality of a great page turner, but the movie becomes less effective as it raises the possibility of romance between Alithea and The Djinn. Swinton and Elba are both superb and have a sweet, touching chemistry, but they never forge the kind of bond that feels passionate enough to transcend time and space. The movie tosses off some fascinating ideas in the closing stretch, including the way a djinn might feel redundant in a world where technology has become its own modern-day magic. But "Three Thousand Years Of Longing" ends on a muted, uncertain note. It left me faintly curious about what might happen next, which is not quite the same thing as wanting more.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Three Thousand Years Of Longing." On Monday's show, we kick off a weeklong series of some of our favorite music interviews from the archive with two rock guitarists - The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, who co-founded the band and wrote songs with Mick Jagger, and with Brian May, a founding member of Queen and its lead guitarist. He wrote one of the band's most famous songs, "We Will Rock You." I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAST OF BURDEN")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I'll never be your beast of burden. My back is broad but it's hurting. All I want for you to make love to me.
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAST OF BURDEN")
THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) I've walked for miles, my feet are hurting. All I want for you to make love to me. Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? I'm not too blind to see. I'll never be your beast of burden. So let's go home and draw the curtains. Music on the radio... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.