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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution