It’s a common misconception that length need always serve as a precondition for artistic excellence. It’s a deeply ingrained belief one constantly reinforced as (undeniably excellent) works of literature music and cinema retain their privileged places in the canon from War & Peace to The Godfather to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. There exists a multitude of tremendous works of equally tremendous length though the adverse effects of such reasoning can have residual effects. Winter Sleep the latest film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan Turkey’s pre-eminent cineaste unfortunately conflates grandiosity and greatness. Clocking in at a roomy 196 minutes the film is an accomplished work — it took home the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes film festival — but whether it justifies its running time is another question.
Set in the rural snowy mountains of Turkey the film stars Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) as a wealthy intellectual and property owner. Beyond tending to guests in his mountaintop hotel he spends his time attempting to complete a history of Turkish theatre and writing weekly newspaper columns each thinly veiled chastisements of his neighbours. The greater plot pivots on a debt owed by one of the Aydin’s tenants with the ripple effects of their resonating through Aydin’s relationship with his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin is a self-righteous and bitter figure as the film doesn’t take long to reveal. It then belabours the fact for longer than necessary: yes not only is he an incorrigible wretch with his tenants and assistants and his wife and sister but truly anyone around him. That said the extent to which the film foregrounds Aydin as the central protagonist without ever introducing room for sympathy is almost commendable.
It stands to Ceylan’s assuredness of vision one that has been increasingly refined over his past several films. His previous work Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2012) remains one of the finest cinematic achievements in recent years in part due to its naturalism and spaciousness. Every bit as controlled as Winter Sleep the film elevated Ceylan to the realm of the greats reminding audiences how much more challenging it is to show rather then tell. With Winter Sleep the filmmaker’s literary ambitions are obvious as he trades the expansive and evocative hills of Anatolia for a series of sparse dialogue scenes the ghosts of Dostoevsky and Chekhov never far. Such goals can hinder the moments where the film might breathe without such a heavy hand on display.
Ceylan has the benefit of time to develop his characters and thematic but he unfortunately can rely too strong on facile symbolism (spoiler: there is a white horse) with Aydin literally positioned above the adjacent town. Likewise certain minor characters can feel archetypal in a way that doesn’t necessarily serve to revitalize or offer anything new to their tropes.
If I’m selling Winter Sleep as a slog it isn’t my intention. Ceylan is an expert stylist and world builder and it’s hardly a challenge to immerse oneself in the film’s rhythms. Once acclimatized to the film’s pallid (albeit beautifully shot) interiors and Aydin’s equally frigid personality the film is easy to enjoy. The performances are all strong especially Akbag as Aydin’s young wife and the dialogue is compelling from scene to scene. Still as those scenes begin to stack up each individual inclusion can feel suspect. The film is good though maybe not great. One hopes that with the Palme d’Or firmly on his mantle the next time around Ceylan needn’t feel so compelled by prestige and abstract notions of novelistic grandiosity. We already have Fyodor Dostoevsky what we need is Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
WINTER SLEEP directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan starring Haluk Bilginer Melisa Sözen and Demet Akbag opens on Friday March 6.