“War for the Planet of the Apes” and “Lady Macbeth”

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Three years after the passing of Charlton Heston, a franchise was reborn. First, we had “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011). Then came “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014). Chronologically speaking, we should now be enjoying “Breakfast on the Planet of the Apes,” with the low-calorie fruit-and-berries option very much to the fore. Instead of which, along comes “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the harshest installment so far. Whether the poor creatures will ever make it to dusk and bedtime is open to debate.

The hero, as before, is Caesar, whom we have known since he was a chimplet. He is a pacific soul, and the irony that has tolled through the trilogy is that, though averse to conflict, he keeps being wrenched into it, either by more truculent apes or by the dumbness of man. We are reminded of that reluctance at the outset of the new movie, which finds him in a forest, marshalling troops against an onslaught of hostile humans. Having taken a few prisoners, he lets them go, saying, “I did not start this war”—speaking not with a petulant snap but in the slow and measured tones of grim regret.

Right away, in other words, this becomes an Andy Serkis film. It is directed by Matt Reeves, as was its predecessor, but what has summoned audiences to these movies, above all, is Serkis’s computerized presence in the part of Caesar. And Serkis is present—not visible but intensely apprehensible, in every twitch, snarl, and downcast gaze of his animal avatar. To maintain that Caesar is merely played by Serkis, or voiced by him, does paltry justice to his skills, and, in truth, we need a new vocabulary to cope with such innovation. I would say that, through his mastery of motion capture, the character is released.

Not that he has far to roam, in moral terms. The Caesar of the first film was a household pet who wound up as a commander of simian troops, on the Golden Gate Bridge, whereas the new movie dumps him directly into battle and scarcely lets up; by the end, he is chucking grenades and setting off fireballs, like any old hunk of muscle in an action flick. His comrades, including Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan so tender of heart that he should really be running an orphanage for abandoned humans, urge Caesar to lead his loyal apes to a promised land, away from strife, but he spurns that perfectly sensible suggestion for the sake of revenge. And why? Because his family has come to grief at the hands of Homo sapiens—specifically, a nutty colonel (Woody Harrelson) with a God complex. (He was forced, he claims, “to sacrifice my only son so that humanity would be saved.”) As the final credits rolled, I waited for the words “Mr. Harrelson’s rank, war paint, and megalomania courtesy of Marlon Brando,” but in vain.

The main problem with “War for the Planet of the Apes” is that, although it rouses and overwhelms, it ain’t much fun. Not content with taking itself extremely seriously, it asks that we accord it the same respect, and this presents a diplomatic challenge for those of us who believe that there is something intrinsically funny about an orangutan riding a horse. Still, there is much to relish. The script, by Reeves and Mark Bomback, comes up with a pair of finely matched conceits: first, that people might get sick and lose their gifts of speech and higher reasoning; and, second, conversely, that a chimp raised in a zoo (Steve Zahn) might only talk, forgetting how to howl or to hoot. As for the special effects, by now they are so accomplished that they no longer feel like effects at all; we accept, as quite normal, the notion that apes can weep, self-analyze, and, when imprisoned, hatch an elaborate escape plan. Such is the digital sovereignty, indeed, that they sometimes appear all too human, and one wonders how much further they can evolve. In the next film, presumably, they will be forming subcommittees on road safety, going to church in hats, and trying to stop their kids from watching monkey porn after dark. “You look tired,” Caesar is told, as if he’s just had a crappy day at the office. What happened to messing about in trees?

The setting of “Lady Macbeth” is not Scotland, sunk in medieval mist, but northern England, in 1865. Nor does the heroine bear the name Macbeth. She is called Katherine (Florence Pugh), and, though she is a lady, with servants at her command, she spends the movie fighting to unlace the ties of social custom, and to hold the ideal of the ladylike up to scorn. When we first meet her, she has recently married Alexander (Paul Hilton), who, on their wedding night, tells her to strip, climbs into bed, and turns his back on her. They inhabit a grand house, sparsely furnished but crammed with echoes and creaks. Life, for Katherine, is wadded together from boredom, frustration, and insult. You can feel her ticking like a bomb.

Much of the time, she is left in the company of her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and her father-in-law, the unbearable Boris (Christopher Fairbank). He is the kind of brute who makes Katherine sit silently at table while the menfolk converse, and Anna, whom he wrongly accuses of stealing, crawl on her hands and knees. In case we are not sufficiently repelled, the film’s director, William Oldroyd, allows clots of food to cling to Boris’s lips while he eats. It seems only fitting that, when he chokes on his breakfast one day, Katherine should make no move to help. She needs him to suffer.

One of the workmen on the estate is Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), whose jobs include walking the dogs and smoldering in the direction of his mistress. (Some of the dialogue, which is the least subtle aspect of the film, combines his various interests: “Bitch’ll get restless if she’s tied up too long.”) Katherine responds to his advances with alacrity. Downstairs, she may go through the motions of good conduct, but upstairs is another matter; we cut straight from the couple’s rutting, with Katherine gripping the bedstead, to a stream of tea being poured into a porcelain cup. So divided a life cannot be hushed up for long, and rumors reach the ears of her husband, who is away on business. “So, you have become a whore in my absence,” he says on his return.

It’s no accident that the film unfolds in 1865. That was when its source, Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” was published. There was a vogue for the transplanting of Shakespearean tragic motifs into Russian soil, exemplified by Turgenev’s “Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District” (1849) and “A Lear of the Steppes” (1870), although Leskov’s novella-length tale claws deeper than Turgenev, beyond his lyricism and ennui, and enters an elemental wildness that seems touched by the witchery of Shakespeare’s original. It’s worth pointing out what Oldroyd does not take from Leskov: the novella concludes with a forced march and an act of mad revenge in a swollen river, whereas the movie stops short of all that, sticking close to home. For a more comprehensive tribute to Leskov, listen to the opera that Shostakovich forged from the story, in 1934, earning him the dangerous displeasure of the Stalin regime.

Oldroyd is a theatre director by trade, and “Lady Macbeth,” remarkably, is his first full-length feature. It is a lean and forbidding affair—more Jacobean than Victorian, perhaps, in its ominous tread, and in its certainty that blood must spill. Few movies this year will be more likely to molest your sleep. We get a number of deaths, none of them natural, and one, a smothering, is all the ghastlier for being imposed with such determined calm. What draws the camera, and governs its movements, is not animal passion so much as the efforts that are made to trap it. Katherine is often photographed head on, her face dominating the middle of the frame, as if she were about to be interrogated. Only when her husband and his father leave the house do we switch to a handheld shot of her, walking down a passageway and out into the open, toward the moorlands that are her proper habitat. If anything, the movie is mapped out with such controlling care that it occasionally feels airless and unpeopled, leaving us with practical objections: Why do we so rarely see the rest of the staff? Would they not notice a body being hauled away, on horseback, in the still of the night?

Luckily, we have Florence Pugh to balance things out. She has the spontaneity that the tale demands, and the punch of her performance lies in its sheer nerve; even though her character has our sympathy from the start, she keeps asking for more, tugging at us like a querulous child until our patience cracks. Her love for Sebastian—a lusty dolt, and little else—is out of all proportion, and when she tells him, “I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel,” we sense the clutch of something cold and mad in her, and we flinch. As she eliminates the obstacles to her desire, one by one, the center of the fable’s monstrous gravity begins to shift. We like to think that, in a tyrannizing world, the best and the bravest thing is to beat the despots down. The worst thing, though, is that you become a tyrant yourself. ♦

  • Anthony Lane has been a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993. He is the author of “Nobody’s Perfect.”

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