It’s imperative that you know that Winter Sleep is three hours and sixteen minutes long. That’s twenty-seven minutes longer than Interstellar, and Winter Sleep has no spaceships. It also has either no laughs or one laugh, depending on whether you find one particular moment funny. But it’s got immaculate drama.
The length is a problem, or will be for most punters, especially since the film is composed almost entirely of two-handed dialogue scenes. “Why not a play?” you may ask – fairly – and yet the answer is that the film is deeply cinematic. Taking place for the most part in an astronomically photogenic hotel built into the Cappadocia Mountains, in Anatolia, Turkey – and looking for all the world like the set of the next Star Wars film – there is huge scenic beauty and intrigue on display. But beyond that, vitally, the film’s director, Nuri Bilge Ceylon, working with cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, shoots long, delicate, intricate dialogue scenes in a way that makes them mini action movies of the mind. A subtle dolly here, a tiny pan there – it’s incredibly precise formalism, and it’s beautiful.
The plot concerns a pretty horrible man, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, who is kind of like a strange Turkish über-serious Danny DeVito with height), an ex-actor, now running his inherited hotel, and his dealings with his (limited) staff, his hot young wife, his cranky sister, and the tenants of a house he also inherited. As he pisses everyone off, he runs into hot water, slowly (!), and seemingly obliviously. If the film has suspense, the question is: will he see the error of his ways?
I’m not convinced the film is concerned with suspense. “Chekov” is credited as a co-writer, even though it’s not discernibly based on any particular Chekov play, and I think Ceylon is simply implying that he’s working in a Chekovian mood. He’s drawing a portrait of one man through his interactions with others, at the pace of life, but with the occasional dramatic highlight.
The highlights, when they come, though! They’re intense, hugely dramatic, and, interestingly enough to say for a film like this, thrilling. There are savage moments, devastating moments, and enervating moments. There are also – given the world we’re in, which is entirely “real” (there’s no CGI contributing to these amazing mountain dwellings) many simply stunningly gorgeous moments.
A lot of the drama in the film – a lot of the tension – comes from the delicate dance these people constantly do around each other in relation to notions of societal status. Aydin, as a wealthy landlord and a retired celebrity of the arts, has the local prestige of a minor Lord, and a deeply unsettling scene depicts the question of whether one of his tenants will kiss his hand (the film is set in the present day). This was exotic stuff for me and will be for most Westerners. It all adds up to the strange beauty of this strange, beautiful film.