A title beginning with the words “Once Upon A Time In…” might lead you to expect an epic sweep of a film packed with high drama, heart-pumping action and big emotion. If this is a reasonable assumption we must therefore conclude that Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the latest from Turkish writer and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is entitled somewhat ironically, being concerned as it is mainly with the coping strategies of a small group of officials forced to hang around in the middle of nowhere while a murder suspect tries to remember where he’s hidden a body.
After a short and mildly cryptic opening section showing three men drinking in a remote and rundown outpost somewhere on the Anatolian plateau in Turkey the film proper starts with the night-time arrival of two cars and an army truck at a featureless turn in the road somewhere in a bleak expanse of fields and gullies. A dozen men get out, including a dishevelled handcuffed prisoner whose inability to accurately recall exactly where the men with spades need to dig is trying the patience of the harried police commissioner who has promised his superiors a quick resolution. While the policeman pressures his suspect we start to get to know the other men who are standing around waiting: the drivers, a doctor, a photographer, the court prosecutor. They talk amongst themselves about matters professional and personal before the prisoner is eventually forced to admit that they may be at the wrong location, whereupon they get back in the cars and move on. This sets the pattern for the rest of the night.
About the only epic thing about Once Upon… is its running time of two and a half hours, but it manages to be miraculously engrossing for most of it despite the deliberate absence of pretty much anything in the way of explicit event – the drama here is all to do with what’s going on in the characters’ heads, and Ceylan would seem to be something of an expert in giving us access to their inner feelings without resorting to clunky exposition and contrived conflict. There’s one stunning shot in particular that slowly closes in on the haunted face of the prisoner in the back of the police car while his guards chat idly about yoghurt around him that reveals acres of character. While this undoubtedly a slow and measured film it’s by no means an irritatingly arty or willfully obscure one. If anything it’s so absorbing because it’s hyper-realistic, with the men behaving reasonably and believably throughout, one or two moments of short temper notwithstanding, and its something of a coup on the part of the director to be able to convey their fatigue and discomfort without boring the audience.
My only problem with the film is to do with the last section, set in the local big town the following day, which seems a little drawn-out, even though it does in its quiet way present a shattering revelation for one character and a moral dilemma for another – the distinctive spell the movie casts seems to break once the business of the night comes to an end and we return to civilisation. This is assuredly not a movie for anyone wanting quick thrills but it cuts deep and has stayed with me for a couple of days now. Recommended.