The steppes of Turkey. Former actor Aydin (Bilginer) runs a hotel with his wife Nihal (Sözen) and sister Necia (Akbag). As the temperature drops outside, tensions boil inside.
If there is a cinematic polar opposite of Transformers: Age Of Extinction then it is Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 196-minute, minutely observed, endlessly talky, ultimately rewarding Palme d’Or winner. Lacking the genre hooks of Ceylan’s best-known work, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, it requires patience but in return delivers an absorbing portrait of a marriage teetering on the brink of collapse.
At its heart, Winter Sleep is a character study of a misanthrope. A former actor-turned-hotel owner, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) lords it over a Turkish mountain village, be it writing a pompous column in a local newspaper and dispatching heavies to collect debts, or in his failing relationships with his vibrant wife (Melisa Sözen) and feisty divorced sister (Demet Akbag). On paper this doesn’t sound the stuff of great cinema — a series of extended fire-lit conversations about the small (mushroom collecting) and the huge (evil in a godless world) — but it is beautifully written and played, revelling in messy realities in ways movies rarely touch on.
Ceylan opens the drama out with exquisite widescreen imagery — eerie caves, wild horses, buildings cut into rock faces — but finds equal drama in the cracks and crevices of his actor’s faces. Sözen shines as Nihal, a smart, analytical, passionate woman who has given up her life for a much older husband and movingly tries to claw it back. But this is Bilginer’s show. Aydin is arrogant, judgmental and misanthropic and the actor doesn’t stint on any of it, an emotional narcoleptic burying his emotions under a cover of cynicism and intellectual posturing. His incremental descent towards self-awareness is never played for sympathy; he is a fully realised character who even at his worst remains compelling company. And all that delivered by the brother of Ali ‘OzCabs’ Osman in EastEnders circa 1987.
It will test your concentration, resolve and butt cheeks to the limit but Winter Sleep will reward your staying power: a perfectly played, beautiful-looking, exquisitely nuanced picture. Would make a great, if gruelling, decaying-wedlock double bill with Gone Girl.