Et tu, Brute? Andy Serkis as the ape-leader Ceasar.
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Monkey business: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is smart, ravishing and bleak

The latest addition to the Planet of the Apes franchise is the toughest yet - the transition from playful ape and human interaction to bloody horror comes across as scarily plausible.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A)
dir: Matt Reeves

Caesar, Ash, Rocket, Blue Eyes. No, not the members of a new boy band but the hirsute protagonists of the latest instalment in a franchise that is both long-running and long of title. After previous outings such as Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Slightly to the Left of the Planet of the Apes, we now have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Beginning with the eradication of mankind by the simian flu that spread at the end of the last film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the new picture is the bleakest in a series that was never exactly all-singing, all-dancing.

It is also smart and visually ravishing – at times even Constable-esque in its moist, verdant landscapes – without ever stinting on thrills. The only audiences likely to be disappointed are those expecting a dumbing-down or a lightening-up. Let’s put it this way: if the series ever spawns a movie entitled Light at the End of the Tunnel of the Planet of the Apes, I’m a monkey’s uncle.

One of the surprises of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which rebooted the series and felt like the documentary Project Nim remade as an action blockbuster, was the moment halfway through when the laboratory apes began to communicate among themselves in sign language, subtitled for our benefit. It was odd to eavesdrop on what the animals thought about their human captors – about us.

This time, it’s a different world. The apes dwell in sophisticated forest encampments and talk of humans much as we might now mention Woolworths, mockingly but with a tinge of nostalgia. The merest shrug between apes translates into many subtitled sentences; they converse so economically, it’s like being in the company of several hundred Robert Mitchums. But they have also increased their spoken vocabulary and can say “family”, “future”, “home” and other rudimentary nouns. Never mind monkeys, typewriters and the collected works of Shakespeare: this lot is already capable of turning out a Tony Parsons novel.

Caesar remains the charismatic, even-tempered leader, cognisant (unlike many of his fellow apes) of the good that humans can do, as well as the ill. He is played by the British actor Andy Serkis, the undisputed king of motion-capture performance, for which an actor wears a skin-tight, blue suit studded with lights (imagine a raver on the late-1980s acid house scene), enabling whatever he or she does to be translated by computer into an animated performance. The technology is so advanced that we can no longer see on-screen where the actors end and the apes begin.

Serkis (a former Mike Leigh regular whose motion-capture career began when he was cast as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films) nabs the most brooding close-ups. He gives Caesar a trademark incredulous stare that gets a big laugh. Head bowed and eyes raised, he seems to be saying, “You’re shitting me, right?” And his pathos is bottomless. The film ends with his soulful peepers staring out at us, imploring and accusing.

When the apes discover a settlement of humans not far from the forest, they are torn between those represented by Caesar, who want to help the stragglers, and those led by Koba (Toby Kebbell), who makes Stalin look as cute as a PG Tips chimp. The rest of the film explores these tensions with admirable thoroughness. Arguments are lucid on both sides, actions intelligible. Everything will be going fine and then a human will jeopardise it by doing something rash. Or else the humans will be playing ball when Koba or his allies will lash out. One scene showing apes mingling with humans is terrifying in the suddenness with which it tips from tomfoolery to horror – and highly plausible.

Can the apes and the humans ever co­exist peacefully? Don’t bet on it – the franchise would be over if they did. Sometimes, though, the unlikely happens. Caesar finds a dusty camcorder, unused for decades, which bleeps magically into life at first try. Then there’s that defunct movie series about a world overrun by apes, the subject of a dreadful salvage attempt in 2001 by Tim Burton, which has now delivered a pair of cerebral and suspenseful action thrillers. Anything’s possible.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide