• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Wednesday, September 21, 2022

    The Queen of Sheba and Solomon in Three Thousand Years of Longing

    I've been so busy recently that I've not had a chance to do a blog post yet, but, given its recent release, I thought it would be remiss of me not to say, at least, something about Three Thousand Years of Longing which is on the tail end of it's theatrical run.

    The film stars Tilda Swinton as  Alithea, a narratologist, and Idris Elba as a Djinn/Genie who escapes from a bottle she buys in the grand bazaar in Istanbul. Elba's Djinn has been trapped for 3000 years – with only occasional moments out in the open – for 3000 years and is desperate to escape. Alithea however, as a professional in this field, is not only wary of making her three choices, due to the string of cautionary tales which form a cornerstone of her expertise, but also wise  to the opportunity to explore the kind of first-hand information about her specialism which is hard to come by.

    And so the two talk, at length. Indeed, while the trailers and pre-release hype for the movie have focused on the special effects and the fantasy CGI, the story itself is essentially an extended dialogue, just with impressive-looking backdrops and flashbacks.

    One of the earliest flashbacks goes right back to the days of King Solomon, or, more to the point, the days of the Queen of Sheba (played here by Aamito Lagum). It is she, rather than he, that is the focus here. Both the Djinn and Solomon are in love with her but Solomon is able to use his magical musical skills (he's shown playing a fanciful instrument that accompanies Solomon) to win her over and having done so it is he that is the first to trap the Djinn in the bottle.

    The segment – which is only brief – is an interesting mix of the passing mention of the couple in the Hebrew Bible, some ancient non-biblical traditions, other traditional mythical stories and modern storytelling. The queen is, herself, part Djinn, but nevertheless ultimately she chooses Solomon, not the Djinn. What's interesting here is the question of who has the upper hand in the relationship is reversed. In the Hebrew Bible, events take place at his court. The queen comes to him and is just one of the many women he is connected to. Here it is the queen that is in the driving seat. Her court, and she has can choose between Solomon & the Djinn – effectively a choice between her two natures, human and Djinn.

    I suppose that could be viewed as a feminist take on the story, though as the film unfolds her choice seems more and more to be a bad one. He uses demons to help him pass the queens tests and shows cruelty for his rival for her love by casting him into a bottle and then into the Red Sea. Moreover, the Djinn turns out to be loving, caring and compassionate, as well as looking like Idris Elba.

    It's also interesting, then, that to impress Solomon we're told that the queen shaves her legs, and there's a brief shot of (what looked to me like) her incredibly hairy legs – not so much like someone who has run out of Veet, or even like a hairy man's legs, but more like the kind of thick fur that grows on an alpaca's throat. Is this a surrender of her true self to humane/male/western beauty ideals. I'd need to see it again. Those interested in more details might like to read Peter Chattaway's fairly long long write up at his substack.

    I came away from the film quite disappointed though. This may just be down to false expectations – it was a great, enticing, trailer, but it rather mis-sold what the film was about. The CGI work was impressive, but being mainly used in narrated scenes it felt strangely limp. I think it was that the sound was largely non-diegetic, and Alithea never enters into those worlds, so they felt almost hermetically sealed off. He tells what should be incredibly exciting stories, in a dull, almost disinterested, fashion.

    This is compounded by the way the actors deliver their lines. Elba speaks softly, there's care and compassion, but never much passion, he seems strangely inert and the accent he adopts is kind of distracting too. it's too forced. Swinton's accent is no better. Again, perhaps this is just my expectations, but she adopts the kind of thick Lancashire accent, that's usually encountered in a Wallace and Gromit film. It should be perfectly valid, and perhaps this just a reflection of my own prejudice, but it just took me right out of the film.

    All of which feels like a shame because I did enjoy it as well. It is, at the very least, highly original, and the CGI is very good. And there are few quite films about friendship, and love that revolve around two great actors talking. And it's not like I don't have a penchant for films where the emotion is turned right down. Somehow, though, the heart is missing and so like the Queen herself, I'm more taken by Solomon's story than the Djinn's.