THERE'S NO WAY to describe Winter Sleep without making it sound taxing. It's well over the three-hour mark, extremely talky and Chekhovian, and it takes place in an obscure corner of an Anatolian winter. Its characters have little to do other than sit near the fire, drink tea, and torture each other with piercing insights about each other's flaws. It's slow, occasionally painful, and ultimately pretty brilliant, peppered with melancholy universalities. But yes. It's a bit of a chore.
The majority of Winter Sleep takes place at the Hotel Othello, a charming monstrosity of a guesthouse that's literally built into the side of a mountain in Turkish Asia Minor. It's muddy and frigid but wild and serene, and a tiny handful of tourists have come to stay, providing occasional company for the hotel's permanent residents, who have otherwise grown to hate each other. Luckily, there's plenty of room.
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is the patriarch of the establishment (and by extension, of the nearby village), a former actor who inherited it along with his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), who spends her time lounging around regretting her divorce and criticizing her brother's editorials in the local paper. Aydin's much younger wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), is like a beautiful ghost who lives in her own quarters, draped in heavy sweaters and quiet disappointment.
The fact that the conversations among this miserable bunch—along with a smattering of unlucky villagers and the help—can sustain an uneventful film of this length is nothing short of astonishing. Director and co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan is calm and deft in his delivery of a story whose tone is set by an arresting opening shot of jagged rock and freezing mist. It may require an unhurried mind, but Winter Sleep is imbued with a fortifying emotional truth that's all too rare.