It’s an awfully slow burn, but Winter Sleep burns deep and true. This is a drama of subtle force; nothing is thrown, and there are no explosive bouts of theatricality. In fact, the film’s most virtuosic moment — a 15-minute battle between a brother and sister — is performed from seated positions, born out of simple criticism. Winter Sleep is a tiresomely drawn-out, but often rich portrait of either the most cunningly controlling or most emotionally oblivious man ever to exist. His name is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), and he’s just a humble hotel owner in Turkey.
Aydim runs the Hotel Othello, a handsome, homey place that looks like it organically evolved from a hillside. It gives off the feeling of warmth in isolation, appears in travel guides, and seems outside of time in a way, like little old world mountainside huts. But there is internet and maid service. The lodging’s name likely came about from Aydim’s affinity for Shakespeare. He was a stage actor for 25 years. He will tell anyone about this and is proud to have never done soaps on TV. Naturally, he has an authoritative presence and weathered good looks, too, with a salt and pepper beard and flowing, thinning hair to distract from his generally shabby physique. He likes being the center of attention, to orate and put a stamp on any conversation.
And therein lies the problem.
Aydim has been so isolated, and is so melodramatic, that he fails to realize how negatively he affects the people around him. That’s Winter Sleep’s most fascinating quality. Again, this is a quiet study of a selfish grand poobah. It could be argued that Aydim’s a talented manipulator, but it’s easier to believe that he just doesn’t understand how the world works around him. He bloviates, pontificates, has an air of showiness to his words. He’s used to heavy attention and has probably never had a deep or meaningful conversation in his entire life if the things he says are any indication. In fact, he doesn’t seem to do anything but push responsibilities off on maids and lawyers while he tinkers away at his columns for a tiny local paper. And his pieces are either boilerplate political screeds or boring etiquette guides. They have nothing to do with hotels or acting — he’s not writing about anything he knows.
Winter Sleep shows the ripples of this one man’s unpleasant ego. He may smile and nod and claim he has accrued wisdom, but anyone around him sees right through it. His beautiful young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), has worked incredibly hard to build a charity campaign on her own, and Aydim has no clue as to why his butting in might be problematic. His tenants resent his wealth, but it’s hard for him to see or care when there’s a wall of handlers between Aydim and the people who live in his family’s old homes.
Back to that extended argument: It’s the core of the film. You see how venomous Aydim can be, and yet he probably doesn’t even realize he’s behaving badly. Old know-it-alls never do. His sister, Necla (Demet Akbag), expresses her opinion about Aydim’s columns. She says something about Aydim’s last piece being disingenuous. Necla characterizes his writing as the “disguise of lyricism,” with the “stink of sentimentality.” Aydim scoffs at the claim, saying that he’s just a writer. But then as she continues to elaborate, suspicious he’s not listening to or engaging with her, Aydim begins to chide, then outright belittle his sister for expressing dissent. His gradual devolution into anger is breathtaking. Aydim not only refutes his sister’s criticism but takes her down and claims that “nobody expects anything from you.” She was just stating an opinion. All this, just to reiterate that Aydim is a man who’s completely out of it in every way.
The Palme D’or winner from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival is arriving now in the U.S. nearly a year after its debut. For the most part, it was worth the wait, and almost worth the 196-minute runtime as well. The movie plants interesting seeds and takes us away until it’s the right time to witness the plot open up. When we see the consequences of a broken window, a long-harbored resentment, or a mild criticism, Winter Sleep engages with a captivating pathos.