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20 November 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:18pm

Cold, cold heart: Winter Sleep is far from a Turkish delight

While it is no hardship to gaze upon ravishing images of the landscape as its autumnal glow vanishes under an icy crust, there’s not much to keep the intellect thrumming over the course of 196 minutes.

By Ryan Gilbey

Winter Sleep (15)
dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has provided abundant evidence that he is a great director, most notably in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011). But despite having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Winter Sleep is not great film-making. It centres on Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who runs a hotel nestled in the knobbly hills of the Anatolian countryside; its contours protrude from the landscape like vertebrae. Mud risks limiting access but Aydin has no plans to put down gravel. “The tourists like it this way,” he says smugly. “It’s natural. And I don’t want everyone here anyway.”The hibernation implied by the title applies not only to the coming blizzard but to the hotelier, who is barricaded emotionally from those more unfortunate than himself. Inaccessibility in this case applies to people as well as places.

While he flaunts the few charitable gestures he makes, his much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), is doggedly raising funds for a local school. The film leaves no doubt about whose side it is on during a protracted argument between the couple in front of a crackling log fire. As the wood pops violently like dreams being pricked one by one, the flames sharpen Nihal’s exquisite cheekbones. To her husband they are less kind, casting on to the wall behind him a monstrous, looming shadow.

This bias towards the fetching young woman at the expense of the grizzled man with the saddlebag face could be excused, even enjoyed, in Ceylan’s 2006 picture Climates, in which similar roles were played self-deprecatingly by the director and his wife, Ebru. (The couple also wrote Winter Sleep together, inspired by several unspecified Chekhov stories.) Here the odds seem stacked unfairly and melodramatically against the protagonist. Aydin faces a stream of bitter criticism from Nihal, who tells him he is “unbearable, selfish and cynical” and that she will wither away in “emptiness, boredom and fear”.

This comes after many examples of Aydin’s insufferable vanity. He tells a hotel guest that he was once an actor: “I prefer the word ‘thespian’, though.” When the young man admits that he is an author, Aydin tries to trump him with a boast: “I’m writing a book, too. It will be a serious, thick book.”

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We have also heard his plain-speaking sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), itemise coolly the flaws in the columns that Aydin writes for the local newspaper: “Soppy romanticism . . . naive self-belief . . . takes no risks . . . flogging a dead horse . . .” With family like that, who needs enemies?

But he has those, too. The catalyst for the gradual erosion of all the certainties in his life is a rock thrown at Aydin by a young child whose father is one of his victimised tenants. As a landlord of properties in the surrounding area, Aydin is proudly ignorant of what his debt collectors do. But that is about to change.

No art movie is complete without a deprived child with mournful eyes or a beleaguered beast of burden. Winter Sleep has both. Alongside the boy, there is a wild horse that is being tamed so that Aydin can keep it on the hotel land to please the tourists. The film makes boy and beast synonymous in separate scenes in which they are shown being pulled out of streams. Would it be too
much to wish that the mechanics of Winter Sleep were invisible? The boy, the horse – these are obvious devices exposing Aydin’s shortcomings.

Had his fallibility been lent different aspects, the picture might not have played like a slow-motion character assassination. But it is comprised not so much of scenes as exhibits in a prosecution case. It’s understandable that Ceylan wants Aydin to arrive gradually at the realisation that his lofty self-image is a sham. The trouble is, the audience clocks this immediately. While it is no hardship to gaze upon Gökhan Tiryaki’s ravishing images of the landscape as its autumnal glow vanishes under an icy crust, there’s not much to keep the intellect thrumming over the course of 196 minutes.

The script’s disparaging references to soap opera suggest that Ceylan is as partial to snobbery as Aydin is. Or maybe they are simply in-jokes in the presence of the film’s star, Bilginer, who was a regular on EastEnders in the 1980s. He played Mehmet Osman, whose crimes included betting £10 that he could get Mary the punk into bed, swindling Kathy Beale out of the profits from her knitting business and pimping out Pat. What a cad. Still, anyone watching Winter Sleep might reflect that those soap writers knew a thing or two about drama.