For most other films, it would be an insult to say it would play well on stage. In the case of Winter Sleep, however, it would be not only a compliment, but an acknowledgement of the change in tack by its acclaimed writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. While his typically stunning eye for Anatolian vistas and the effects of Turkish climes are still very much in evidence, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival sees Ceylan get comparatively chatty. Regrets and angers fuel the discussion, but it plays first and foremost like a dialogue on the Erdogan-ian state, and all started by an act of petty vandalism by a young boy. It could be called We Need To Talk About Turkey.
As commentaries go, it’s a simple setup: an aging man against an increasingly-hostile and accelerating world. Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a former theatre actor turned hotel proprietor and landlord in the hewn and haggard Cappadocian caves. He’s prosperous, he’s intelligent and he’s disliked by most everyone around him. We slowly learn of Aydin’s pomposity, manifesting itself in a patronising manner. Bilginer’s performance is based around a balancing act; Aydin is pompous, but not overbearingly so. He is surrounded by tension and acts of violence, but opts to remain indifferent to mask his cowardice. Then, along comes a stone to smash his façade.
Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan) throws a stone at Aydin’s passing van, smashing a window. Whilst Aydin’s aide Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) gives chase on foot, our self-aggrandised wise man waits behind his cracked window and observes. The boy’s actions seem random, but a subsequent meeting with his father (Nejat Isler) explains a lot. Aydin is the family’s landlord, and rent is not forthcoming. Even as this confrontation gets heated, Aydin refuses to get involved directly. From this one act comes confrontation, self-examination, the opening of old wounds and realisation of regrets. This butterfly effect is localised, but in turn reflects Turkey in the here and now. It’s built on frustration, torn between East and West, with an aging leadership falling out of touch from those it purports to lead and encourage. The drama is riveting, but this commentary is Ceylan’s motivator.
Aydin’s standing in his locality, imagined and otherwise, comes from his successes in various fields. He owns and runs a hotel, the Othello. The hotel’s name is a reminder of his days as an acclaimed theatre actor. These days, when not chatting to guests or counselling villagers, he writes a column for a local newspaper (with a typically-pompous title, ‘Voices of the Steppe’). Ceylan and his co-writer (and wife) Ebru Ceylan give Aydin this life and these successes as fuel for his own shortcomings. It doesn’t help that those closest to him (at least, in proximity) are his newly-divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag) and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), a much younger woman Aydin recently married. Necla is full of resent and open to criticising most anything Aydin does, most of which falls on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Nihal is an aspiring charity fundraiser, but he belittles her efforts. The plot beats come and go, but they serve only to carry us to the heart and soul of Winter Sleep. It’s built around discussion, as Aydin undergoes one verbal confrontation after another, each exposing another of his flaws. Every discussion is treated as a battleground, and though Aydin fancies his chances, he’s more evenly matched than he thought on most every occasion.
The settings and plot may deny Ceylan the opportunity to capture such awe-inspiring sights as those mercurial wide shots of the landscape in Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, but the characters and their conflicts draw us in so much that it’s not as great a loss as it otherwise might have been. Aydin’s cosy study is his ivory tower from which he surveys Cappdocia, but when the locals come to him he finds himself unprepared. There’s humour to be found in his interactions with Ilyas’ uncle Hamdi (Serhat K?l?c), a sycophantic imam. Necla is a constant thorn in his side, but she’s rarely incorrect. Meanwhile, his marriage to Nihal slowly founders. Her youthful energy cannot bear his standoffish intelligence, which he uses “to suffocate people, to crush and humiliate them.” Winter Sleep is repeated verbal assault on its characters, delivered with insight and artistry. Ceylan never loses sight of Turkey’s natural beauty; Winter Sleep may take some barbed swipes at Turkey’s establishment, but its tourist board ought to be thankful.
Winter Sleep is not exactly multiplex-friendly. The three-hour-plus running time is stretched out a little, to the point that a viewer’s focus on the plot may waiver towards the final act. In its defence, it deals with a lot of themes. From state inaction, to man’s capacity for evil, to the role of women in modern Turkey, Winter Sleep is admirably ambitious, even if it’s not interested in bringing everyone for the ride. You go with it or you don’t, but fans of Ceylan’s work will definitely not be disappointed. Everyone else is encouraged to give his latest opus a try, at least.