‘Winter Sleep’ Review: A Deeply Observant, Quiet Epic

By  · Published on December 17th, 2014

Adopt Films

In his most talky and arguably most “Turkish” film to date, writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan grandly ponders and elaborates on an immense amount of thickset, intricate and ever so spiraling drama around the human condition. 2014’s Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, the seventh feature of Ceylan’s career, takes aim throughout its 196-minute expansive running time and shoots its thorny ideas around class, society and the many self-righteous trivialities of the privileged to an often brutally truthful outcome. Not all of these bullets always find a target, mind you –Winter Sleep occasionally squanders its wealth of wisdom amid hitting redundant notes (one can imagine a shorter and equally effective film)– but when they do, the icy, visceral pain it evokes is at once humanizing and mystifying in equal measure.

Winter Sleep is set in the fantastical Cappadocia in Turkey – land of the ‘fairy chimneys’ – and mainly follows the evidently well-off stage-actor-turned-hotel-owner Ayd?n (Haluk Bilginer) and his dealings with his young wife Nihal (a stellar Melisa Sözen, the film’s greatest treasure), boredom-ridden, once married sister Necla (Demet Akba?), and savvy, loyal right-hand man Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Managing his family-inheritance authentic hotel in this removed, yet touristic region, Ayd?n spends his days less with the hotel’s work (except when he interferes with the free-spirited travelers), but more with writing thematic think pieces for a local paper on any topic that sparks his fancy at the time and trying to finish (or rather, start) his grandiose work; a book on the history of Turkish Theater. His name literally translates as “enlightened” in English, and roughly means “a well-educated intellectual” in Turkish society. And the choice of name here looks to be rather on the nose (to pay off my “Ceylan’s most Turkish film” allege earlier) and no coincidence The name, or more appropriately the label, comes with a certain baggage in Turkey’s current social and economic state and foreshadows a critique of the ‘so called’ or ‘sort of’ ayd?ns’ out of touch state of mind that can’t get its priorities straight. And not surprisingly, Ceylan patiently paves the way with hefty dialogues between Ayd?n and the rest of the household who are inexplicably stuck in their respective living situations, and reveals Ayd?n’s insecurities, thirst for masculine power and impassive smugness, while building a microcosm of the Turkish society inside and outside of the hotel’s walls.

Winter Sleep’s first dramatic disturbance comes early on in the film, when Ayd?n’s pick up truck is stoned by a kid; whom we later on learn to be the youngest of a family in dire debt to Ayd?n, even after losing many of their belonging’s to his debt collectors. (One should note here that Ayd?n can’t bring himself to deal with such matters that pose great discomfort to him personally, and Hidayet is often left to do the dirty work.) The stone that shatters the car’s door also symbolically cracks the seemingly quiet existence Ayd?n pretends to enjoy, supposedly living harmoniously with his family in the safety of their cocoon. And once there’s a crack, there’s bound to be destruction and debris.

Soon enough, we witness the simmering tension between Ayd?n and his wife during a discussion about Ayd?n’s desire to donate money to a school. At first, Nihal looks to be in the wrong by questioning a donation that would eventually benefit the wellbeing of disadvantaged women. But the truth comes gradually in the masterfully slow-burning Winter Sleep. Getting to know Ayd?n magnifies the real reason he considers this particular charity: a flattering letter he receives from one of his readers who teaches at the school. We also get to know that the routine charity-organizer Nihal, who is often patronized and insidiously condescended by Ayd?n in every aspect of her work, knows that. During a key scene later in the film, when the boy who’s stoned Ayd?n’s pick up truck drops in for an apology (and kiss his hands, as per Turkish customs), as well as another during one of Nihal’s charity meetings, Ayd?n displays flat out egotistical and appalling behavior, confirming much of the unspoken acerbic history between the two characters. The tension is also present between Ayd?n and his sister Necla. Despite Necla’s many attempts, he can’t seem to understand her views on defeating the evil with kindness (think Les Misérables’ Bishop letting Jean Veljean get away with the silver,) a lengthy argument in one of the films many well-played talky set pieces. As the tensions heat up and the past of the individuals transcends the present in Winter Sleep- becoming the film’s most masterful currency-, the evident Chekhovian (a consistent source of reference for Ceylan) theatricality heightens and brings each character into sharp focus.

We get to learn that Ayd?n, whose quiet arrogance is reminiscent of Distant’s Mahmut, is basically a walking moral and intellectual contradiction. He hops from interest to interest, claiming authority on subject matters that are in fact foreign to him (his sister accuses him with pontificating during one of their prolonged tête–à–têtes.) His seemingly genuine acts are usually followed up by disingenuous demands. He pretends to be content, yet is visibly being crushed under the burden of his emotional and intellectual immobility. His humanity is questionable at best, and uncompassionate frequently. For instance, he complains about the lack of aesthetic tastes and cleanliness in Anatolian towns, failing to take the realities that exist beyond his grossly advantaged status into consideration; as a male living in a patriarchal society and as a well off man juxtaposed against the economically oppressed.

Despite being set in one of Turkey’s most picturesque areas, Winter Sleep generally takes place indoors, with purposeful, moody lighting through Gökhan Tiryaki’s (Ceylan’s long-time cinematographer), long takes and decisive lens. Though his photography is all the more breathtaking once there is opportunity to step outside and take in the unrestrained planes and landscapes of the area.

Faltering occasionally with drawn out situations and questionable decisions in script (such as abruptly cutting Necla out of the story), yet soaring with meaning and dramatic significance holistically, Winter Sleep beams with a rare kind of candor and bluntness. Ceylan’s deeply observant, quiet epic might leave you detached at first, but this is the kind of work that aims to creep up on and haunt you in the long haul, in many not instantly recognizable ways.

The Upside: Melisa Sözen, playing the role of Ayd?n’s wife Nihal, is simply a revelation in emotionally finessing her character’s complexities. Ceylan is as attentive and truthful a storyteller as ever. Tiryaki’s cinematography is captivating.

The Downside: The length. The dramatic gravity loses its impact from time to time when situations are overly dragged.

On the side: Winter Sleep is Turkey’s official submission to the 87th Academy Awards, for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.