Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu)

Turkey (2014) Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

A confession – I always approach films from Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan with a touch of apprehension. This is partly due to the lofty praise his films always receive making me feel like an ignoramus when I am less enthused (but still enjoy them). When Winter Sleep conquered Cannes earlier this year and the resultant reviews uniformly proclaimed this “a masterpiece” and “one of the greatest films ever made”, it is hard not to tremble under this weight of expectation, especially when learning the film also runs for over three hours!!

Winter Sleep is a verbose and intellectually probing meditation on morals, virtue, politics, religion, wealth and poverty with a curious and demanding intent that would make Ingmar Bergman proud. Set in a small mountain village in Anatolia, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a wealthy former actor who now runs a small hotel with his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen). Along with owning much of the property around the village Aydin also writes a column for the local newspaper, which earns him a loyal following of readers who regularly seek his sagacious advice.

A cosy and idyllic set up except for the small matter that it seems Aydin is not as popular as he thinks he is. Aydin’s recently divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) has moved in and does nothing with her time leading to many heated discussions about her leaving her husband while Nihal can’t even stand to look at her husband as he constantly thwarts any acts of independence she wishes to pursue. Then a run in with a tenant Ismail (Nejat Isler), the brother of the unctuous Imam Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), over the former being beaten by debt collectors for overdue rent creates another set of problems which neither Aydin’s wealth nor wise words can fix.

In all honesty the plot is good for a 90 minute if that which makes the lengthy run time all they more daunting. However Ceylan doesn’t create one dimensional characters who are there to simply react, serve as a catalyst or provide a resolution; his characters have opinions, thoughts, ideas and feelings and are given the platform to display these in depth. When they argue there is no exaggerated histrionics or tortured shouting, these people talk from the hearty but with intelligence. Tears flow but they don’t interrupt the importance of the words nor lessen their meaning.

Some filmmakers prefer explicit actions define and depict their characters behaviour and foibles, but not Ceylan and this film is an example of getting that balance right with using dialogue to explain his cast. For example, Aydin berates his sister in one ten minute segment for being a lazy parasite and not pulling her weight then chastises his wife’s for having ambitions and not being a kept woman like a good wife should! This hypocrisy extends to his loyal column readers, cursing those with faith for being mindless sheep following a non-existent entity while condemning the faithless for having no belief in anything.

Of course this is not Aydin’s fault in his mind, even after a tearful Nihal tells him to his face what a pompous, arrogant, insufferable misanthrope his is. Ceylan’s script writing collaborator is his wife Ebru (who also starred in Climates and Distant) which gives the conversations-cum-arguments a truthful frisson which comes from two minds who know each other well. This also allows for a welcome element of insightful balance from both perspectives, making for a much stronger and natural voice for the participants as opposed to one gender trying to assume how the other would react.

Noticeably absent from this film is Ceylan’s usual propensity for lingering shots of nothing that long overstay their welcome. Had this been the proposed four and half hour cut (!) Ceylan original envisioned we probably would have endured them but thankfully we are spared and things move a much brisker and enjoyable pace. The photography hasn’t been compromised by this and Anatolia be it covered in snow or in its natural state is beautifully presented here, allowing every guts of wind, every dusty pebble and every snow flake to shimmer before our eyes.

The use of light and shot composition needs to be applauded too. The big showdown chat between Aydin and Nihal is lit only by the flame of the fireplace and a table lamp for a painfully intimate experience. In complete contrast the final scene set in the snowy hotel grounds is achingly dark despite the clear white sky illuminating the shot, bathing it in a suitably melancholic cold austerity to complete the poetic impact of the moment.

As sharp as the writing is it needs a good cast to deliver it and bring the characters to life. Haluk Bilginer relies on his veteran skills to carry the weight of the film on his experienced shoulders with ease, even taking  a gentle ribbing with good grace – Aydin boasts of being a stage actor and his pride at never doing a soap, while Bilginer appeared in our very own Eastenders in 1989, trivia fans! The stunning Melisa Sözen as Nihal provides the emotional centre and barometer by which Aydin’s arrogance is measured while Demet Akbag is the tougher sparring partner as sister Necla, all bolstered by a very able support cast.

So here is my declaration – Winter Sleep is not quite a masterpiece but it is a remarkable film and assuredly Ceylan’s best and most satisfying film to date. Not a lot happens yet so much ground is covered while managing to reverse the trend of his 100 minute films which seem like an eternity by delivering a three hour plus one that actually flies by.

Quite how what is essentially a garrulous minimalist film is able to ensnare and engage the audience to the level it does is a testament to simple great film making – and not a CGI dragon in sight! A lengthy but sublime and rewarding experience.