Nuri Bilge Ceylan is not afraid to take his time telling a story; Winter Sleep rocks in at 196 minutes. That’s three and a quarter hours. You have to be confident if you’re asking your audience to sit tight for that long, and you have to be able to keep them with you despite, in this case, the lure of things like M&M world and Wong Kei’s all you can eat buffet just up the road. Sadly, there were quite a lot of people who couldn’t resist the rattle of M&Ms: there was a steady stream of walkouts once we hit the two-hour mark. The woman next to me fell asleep after 15 minutes, spent two hours snoring, then woke up and left. But for anyone immune to the pain and suffering that the Odeon West End seats can bestow on even the softest bottom, Ceylan’s Palme D’Or winner was a real treat.
Winter Sleep is a beautifully unfolding tale of a dead marriage, and a man waking up to the realisation that his life isn’t quite what he imagined. It’s quite different to Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I loved, but the themes and the landscapes are similar.
The story is told against the cold, bleak mountains of Anatolia – beautiful, silent and watchful, they stand stoic against a sulky grey sky filled with heavy snow clouds. Aydin (Aluk Bilginer) is an aging actor, running a hotel in the hills with his beautiful much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Nekla (Demet Akbag). You may remember Bilginer as Mehmet in EastEnders but there are no echoes of his soap opera days here, this is a very calm, measured performance. Aydin is lord of his manor, and in his eyes the good, benevolent sort of lord who is adored by his subjects on whom in return, he kindly bestows his wisdom. He’s no longer acting, filling his time writing a pompous newspaper column that nobody reads and thinking about writing a book on Turkish theatre. With the emphasis on thinking about.
Aydin has inherited property from his father but doesn’t seem particularly interested in it, or the people he rents homes to, beyond the financial security it provides. But when a small boy throws a rock through his car window, Aydin’s carefully constructed world starts to fall apart. It seems that maybe he isn’t as wonderful a man as he likes to think.
Nihal is slowly dying of boredom, and full of rage at the quiet life she’s been tricked into leading. She married a famous actor for god’s sake, she thought there’d be parties, not an old man who ignores her most of the time and talks as if he’s still on the stage. When she tries to find something to fill her time, Aydin just can’t cut her loose.
Much of the film happens in dark, claustrophobic rooms lit only by the fireplaces, where we eavesdrop on ramblng conversations. There’s a lot of humour here, but the overriding feeling is of people trapped in lives they dream of escaping from. It’s a long film, and it won’t be for everyone. But if you can hole up in a comfy cinema with a frothy coffee, it’s the perfect chilly afternoon escape.
Maybe for me not quite as gripping as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but Winter Sleep is a fascinating story of crumbling lives, related by a master storyteller.
If you like fast moving action films with lots of car chases then this one might not be for you. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is long and slow, filled with shots of darkly glorious steppes and lengthy conversation. It’s superb. Nuri Bilge Ceylan has directed a film that sucks you in slowly and keeps you there, until suddenly you realise two and a half hours have passed. The story is simple, two men have confessed to a murder and the local world weary police chief is taking them, along with a doctor, prosecutor and assorted other officials into the hills at dusk to dig up the body. Trouble is, they can’t quite remember where they put it now the sun’s gone down. We follow the solemn group of men as they drive from site to site through the night, with Kenan, the suspected killer, a brooding and silent presence. As they pass through the ever darkening steppes we are treated to some beautifully dramatic photography, not least an early scene of the police cars coming into view for the first time, their headlights almost like fireballs blazing through the stormy night.
The story unfolds slowly, and what little we learn about the men unfolds through the conversations the men have with each other as the night gets darker and longer. They start off by discussing the merits of buffalo yogurt, but end up uncovering some (ironically) deeply buried truths. The overriding theme is of fatherhood and loss – we learn that the police chief works long hours because he can’t bear being at home with his sick son, leaving his wife to cope. The prosecutor (who thinks he looks like Cary Grant and has a dodgy prostate) has been in denial over the death of his wife. The doctor is divorced from his beautiful wife and says that he never wanted children although we never learn why this might be (and a poignant shot at the end of the film makes us think there could be more to this than we’re told). And a question of paternity over the murder victim’s son looks like being the motive behind the killing.
In a central and perfectly paced scene, the beautiful daughter of a local Mayor passes out drinks while unknowingly stealing into the souls of all the men, reducing the killer to tears and giving them all pause for thought. This gently shot scene changes the mood of the film entirely – things become much more personal from here on, they’re all searching for something, the body is almost incidental.
Ceylan’s epic film is filled with long beautiful tracking shots, some perfectly composed imagery, moments of humour and moments of sadness all of which add up to a graceful, mesmerising look at life and death. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the closing credits and, despite its length, make you want to watch it again.