With this long, slow Palme d’Or-winning family drama Nuri Bilge Ceylan returns to the same central Anatolian steppe setting of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the land a striking mixture of rocky outcrops and vast, open plains, much of which is gradually covered in snow as the film progresses and winter takes hold. In Winter Sleep time seems to slow right down as the weather outside gradually becomes harsher and the temperature cools, and the second of its three hours mostly consists of a few contrasting indoor scenes that feature long fire-lit conversations between the three main characters, where it seems as though close proximity during their own periods of hibernation has caused previously-buried tension to rise to the surface; they are Aydın (Haluk Bilginer), who several years earlier inherited a remote hotel and the freehold of several houses built beneath it, his young wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbağ), both of whom make repeated comments that reveal their longing for the city life of Istanbul. Though there have been hints leading up to these conversations that the two women share a growing dislike for Aydin (for different reasons), or rather what Aydin has become / is becoming, during this hour we hear their specific gripes in detail, and Aydin isn’t shy in coming forward with his own complaints in response. We have some sympathy with the women as, by this point, we have been made aware of some of Aydin’s flaws: as a rich landlord literally lording it over his tenants from above he has a strained relationship with the poor villagers, principally shown through incidents involving the extended local family of a well-meaning imam (Serhat Kılıç). He writes a pompous weekly column for a local newspaper and appears to be lazy, passing much of his work on to uncomplaining assistant Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Later still we learn that Aydin was an actor, and a conceited one at that; in a rather snobby way he quickly iterates to a hotel guest that he was never in any soap operas, and when said guest explains that he is publishing a small book of essays Aydin instantly responds that he too is writing, though he can’t resist adding that his will be ‘a thick, serious book’. We also discover that Nihal is funding local schools in need of development but the project is not supported by Aydin, partly for the petty reason that he does not like some of the people Nihal is dealing with.
Ceylan’s screenplay – based loosely on Anton Chekhov’s The Wife and co-written by the director with long-term collaborator (and other half) Ebru Ceylan – is intelligent and never turns its central character into a monster. We see, for example, the genial, friendly conversations he has with his last remaining guests before the snow worsens and the hotel is empty; based on this small talk he appears to be a good host, even if he doesn’t actually do much in the way of cooking or cleaning himself. Yet it’s through the flaws that the character fascinates, and it’s a wonderful central performance by Bilginer, who is more-than-ably supported by the rest of the cast. The long, novel-sized conversations that take place between them slowly reveal the state of their relationships, while either side of these beautifully-shot exercises in dramatic dialogue lie a number of more instant (and more memorable) scenes: an attempted capture of a horse; a boy throwing a rock at a passing vehicle; the resulting argument; the same boy being forced to walk for miles in bad weather to kiss Aydin’s hand by way of apology, only to collapse during the onset of pneumonia; a hunted rabbit breathing its last; smoke flickering in the wind. Cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki turns the landscape into a wonder and each shot – whether interior or exterior – has been carefully framed and realised with great skill. The film’s structure is intriguing and the deliberately unhurried pace allows us to find out about these characters slowly, making them seem more realistic than we may have come to expect, even with regards to European arthouse cinema. I’m loathe to describe it as a masterpiece, as I have to admit there were times when watching it felt exhausting, but it’s a fine piece of filmmaking if you have the requisite patience.
Directed by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
Written by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan.
Starring: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen, Demet Akbağ, Serhat Kılıç, Ayberk Pekcan.
Cinematography: Gökhan Tiryaki.
Editing: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bora Göksingöl.
Running Time: 196 minutes.