Former actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) now runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), with whom he has a stormy relationship, and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), who is taking time after a messy divorce. As the snows begins to fall, the hotel becomes a refuge but also an inescapable prison that fuels the animosities between the family members.

 

4.5
Baby, it's cold inside.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: It takes time to see people as they really are and not simply as they want to be seen. How long? Three hours, give or take, if you happen to be Nuri Bilge Ceylan. That’s how long the Turkish writer/director tends to spend circumnavigating the characters of his engrossing domestic epics. He invites you to hover in the room with them until the bigger picture starts to form.

This technique worked to extraordinary effect in his casually shattering masterpiece Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, which turned a sleepy-eyed police procedure into a life-affirming event for all involved. Ceylan crammed us into a hatchback with some burly authorities and one very dodgy looking perpetrator, and their ciggie breaks and small talk made a long night drive something truly special.

In his latest film, the Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, Ceylan sheds light on a shaky marriage, tiptoeing around each of the parties cooped up in their rustic boutique hotel. Over the course of a cold winter old resentments start to surface, and the clanging iron furnace can't match the heat of the arguments that ensue.

We meet Aydin (Haluk Bilgener) first, and he is a charming host who greets the guests; he's an affable aesthete and former actor with a beautiful wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen). His ego is big, to be sure, but he seems to have the goods to back it up. Nihal, for her part, doesn’t make such a good first impression. She seems weirdly churlish when her husband asks for her advice about how to respond to a vague letter that asks for his help. We’ve been dropped in the middle of something that neither Aydin nor Nihal seem to be aware has started, but give it time and a different reading of that same scene will start to emerge.

Aydin and Nihal run the Hotel Othello with his sister, Necla (Demet Akbağ). She is still reeling from a recent divorce, so her days consist of reading magazines and drinking tea, and offering constructive feedback on her brother's provocative columns in the local newspaper, 'The Voice of the Steppe'.

Aydin is mildly offended when a guest hints that a picture of non-existent horses on the hotel website is false advertising. For the sake of his TripAdvisor reviews, he goes to see a man about a horse. The arrival of the Hotel Othello's Anatolian stallion (a match for the one in the .jpg) coincides with the tourist off-season, so the mighty creature is left in the drafty stable to languish in boredom, much like its new owners are, above.

In the wider community, Aydin is a something of real estate mogul but with the economy being what it is, his unemployed tenants are starting to default. Not that he's aware of any of that, in his cosy self-isolation. He’s also oblivious of the rent recovery methods of his minions (their confiscating TVs in lieu of rent payments), but a rock thrown in retaliation by a pint-sized amateur sniper brings him up to speed with brutal efficiency. An incident with the boy’s family brings Aydin into uncomfortable contact with the great unwashed, and, incensed, he pens a pious tirade about them and their ilk, for his newspaper column. His sister, never one to mince her words, calls it out for the tone deaf, petty posturing it is, and then it's on for young and old. 

Necla’s criticism strikes a nerve and defensively, he returns the favour, and their passive-aggressive barbs get more and more nasty. She make sure to throw in a few sideways digs about Nihal too, and through smiling teeth, the home truth bombs start scoring direct hits.

Once Necla gets started she runs with it, and like a virus, it spreads. Nihal gets in on the act too. She calls Aydin out for belittling her work, and goes ballistic when he makes a late play to get involved in her projects. Their wounded egos pour petrol on the already raging fire, and lead to more vicious character assassinations that once out there, can’t possibly be taken back.

I realise that the prospect of being stuck in a hotel for three hours with bickering rich people sounds like an interminable #firstworldproblem, but Winter Sleep is stitched together with so much wit and self-aware theatricality, it’s abundantly clear how Ceylan really feels about the injured egos of the remotely rich.

Don't be put off by the running time, either; it's really only a scene or two longer than the first of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movies (though it feels much shorter); the quality of the writing and the pace makes a far more rewarding journey.

 

Watch Winter Sleep at SBS On Demand