When Nuri Bilge Ceylan won Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or this year for new film Winter Sleep, some critics reckoned it was as much for his body of work as for the film itself. A Cannes regular whose past films all walked away with prizes but never the coveted Golden Palm, his victory was certainly long overdue. Yet it was no sympathy vote: an intimate epic, Winter Sleep is right up there with the Turkish director’s best.
Admittedly, with a three-hour-plus running time and that soporific title, it might seem like a daunting arthouse endurance test. From Uzak and Climates to 2011’s unnerving procedural Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Ceylan is unhurried at the best of times. Factor in a tale driven by character and conversation – rather than action and incident – and you can be forgiven for thinking it’s you that’ll be enjoying a seasonal slumber.
Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Set in the central Anatolian region of Cappadocia, it centres on Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who now helps run a small hotel and fires off columns for the local rag. With Aydin married to the much younger Nihal (Melisa Sözen), the spine of the story is a microscopic study of their relationship, gradually fraying at the seams.
Resentments fester beneath the surface (Nihal has come to think of Aydin as “an unbearable man”), just as they do between Aydin and his recently divorced sister (Demet Akbag). Both Bilginer (a one-time EastEnders regular) and Sözen are wonderful in their respective roles, wrestling with these completely realised characters with true conviction.
Kudos to Ceylan and his co-writer, wife Ebru, for having the courage to let dialogue scenes unfold at length. As the camera lingers on the remote but undeniably stunning landscapes, the result is a richly nuanced melting pot of bitterness, recriminations and regrets.