Some will undoubtedly be of the opinion that a 196-minute film without car chases, explosions, superheroes, dinosaurs or oversized robots that turn into cars must be boring, but “Winter Sleep” proves them wrong. To be sure, it demands patience and attentiveness, but like a play by Chekhov—its obvious inspiration—the film reveals a great deal about the reality of the human condition through its probing characterizations and pungent dialogue. (Comparisons with the domestic dramas of Edward Albee wouldn’t be out of place, either.)
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon A Time in Anatolia”) and written with his wife Ebru, the film is basically a character study that’s also the story of a marriage in trouble. The central character is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, who from some perspectives looks very much like Ian Holm). He owns a hotel in a remote area of the mountains of Cappadocia, literally carved out of the rock, where he lives with his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin is an ex-actor, collecting material for a prospective book on Turkish theatre, and a sort of self-styled arbiter of taste and propriety, penning a regular column for the local newspaper in which he comments scornfully on what he considers lapses of decorum among local residents.
By the standards of the locality Aydin is also a wealthy man, with rental properties in the area. The film opens with him in that role, when Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), a young boy, angrily aims a rock at the passenger window of the rover in which Aydin is being driven by his factotum Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Hidayet catches Ilyas and they take him home, where his gruff father Ismail (Nejat Isler) confronts them, Hidayet taking the lead while Aydin tarries some distance from the confrontation. The family’s hostility results from the fact that they’d failed to pay their rent and so been visited by a debt collector—to Ismail, a humiliation. The next day, however, Ismail’s younger brother, the obsequious imam Hamdi (Serhat Kilic) arrives at the hotel with Ilyas in tow to offer proper apologies and beg forgiveness. Aydin only reluctantly agrees to meet with them at all, not because he’s especially angry but because he’s uncomfortable hobnobbing with such people and following the rituals of lordship. He’d prefer keeping a condescending distance and letting intermediaries take care of such matters for him, like the distant lord he is.
At home Aydin faces some trouble from his sister, who bears him some ill-will because, it seems, he had a hand in persuading—perhaps compelling—to leave her husband. They have long conversations about Aydin’s work in his study, which slowly degenerate into mutual insults. His relationship with Nihal is no less tense, especially when he comes upon a meeting of a committee she’s created to raise funds to improve the local schools, where the appearance of the young teacher Levent (Nadir Saribacak) especially irks him. When her husband tries to make a donation—anonymously, he notes—Nihal refuses; and when he tries to commandeer her oversight of the philanthropic effort, supposedly to insure it will be done properly and his reputation won’t be besmirched, she attacks him verbally with as much venom as her sister-in-law had.
The Ceylans offer both an insightful suggestion and a degree of deliberate misdirection when they call Aydin’s hotel the Othello. The theme of jealousy is certainly present, but anyone expecting the film to take the same turn as Shakespeare’s play will be disappointed. The reference is merely to the poison that words can spread—not only Necla and Nihal’s sharp observations about Aydin, but Aydin’s editorial judgments about everyone around him, whether expressed in print, or in conversation, or simply in attitude. By the end of the film—when he’s engaged in a night of drunken discourse with teacher Levent and widowed farmer Suavi (Tamer Levent)—his veneer of imperturbable gentility has been swept aside, and the viewer has come to see him as the arrogant, cynical man he is, dispensing oracular pronouncements on all around him while maintaining an attitude of aloof, privileged disdain. The only people he appears to treat with a degree of respect are the few guests who come to the hotel during the snowy off season—a Japanese couple, a wanderer going nowhere on particular on his motorcycle. Yet before long they all flee his presence.
Still, the air of noblesse oblige is not, as the final scenes of “Winter Sleep” remind us, limited to Aydin, however false his view of himself might be. Nihal attempts some sort of personal redemption in a visit to Ismail and Hamdi, only to find that not everyone is ready to respond to her charitable impulses. The film ends not with the reconciliation one might hope for, but with the recognition that people are who they are, with clashing ideals and perspectives that make them all as uncontrollable as the wild horse Aydin pays a local man to catch for him.
While Aydin might not be able to bend everyone around him to his will, Bilginer dominates the film with a commanding performance filled with nuance and control. Still, he doesn’t entirely eclipse Sozen’s icily passionate precision as a young woman who understands the compromises she’s made in marrying not just an older man but one like him, or Akbag’s embodiment of Necla’s simmering resentment, or Kilic’s nervous subservience as the imam desperately searching for a way to restore a degree of balance to his family’s life. Meanwhile Pekcan provides contrast as the canny, earthier Hidayet.
The acting is central to the success of a piece such as this, but so are the ambience, which Gokhan Tiryaki’s cinematography captures not only in the extraordinary outdoor scenes but in the subtle interior ones as well, and the rhythm, which Ceylan, acting as editor along with Bora Goksingol, keeps unhurried but intense. The strains of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D. 959, the only music used throughout the film, add a note of ineffable longing to this brilliant but demanding portrait of people trapped by their cultural and emotional baggage in a landscape that emphasizes by its enormity how small they all actually are, whatever their station.