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House of Cards

1 rating: 4.0
A vintage BBC political TV mini-series
1 review about House of Cards

What American television isn't smart enough to aim for...

  • Feb 28, 2010
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American TV, for all the channel choices, has reached a pretty low ebb.  We've got loads of trashy "reality" filler (with some notably bright exceptions on the Discovery Channel), tired "dramedies", etc.

One trend brought by the poverty-stricken imaginations of American producers is the re-writing of British TV fare for the U.S. market.  We have the Brits to thank for "The Office", "Life on Mars", "Coupling", "Queer as Folk", and many others.  These have been more or less successfully remade, but retain little of the original wit, stately acting, style or historical context of the originals.

There are some brilliant British products that are unlikely to make the transition to America intact, and which should definitely be seen in their original versions before some U.S. hack gets to work.  One such is "House of Cards", the first part of a trilogy of four-part mini-series presentations directed by Paul Seed and written by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs ["To Play the King", and "The Final Cut" are the following titles.] 

The story is set in the early 1990's, with the Conservative Party seeming firmly in power in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's sweeping victories.  But the plot borrows from the much older Macbeth and Othello - the Conservative party Whip, Francis Urquhart (brilliantly played by Ian Richardson), has a vision for the future of Britain with himself at the forefront.  Urquhart is frustrated by the complacency of his party leaders, their pandering to the middle class, and above all, their failure to respect his brilliance.  The Whip has to collect dirty secrets, manipulate the press, and keep the party members in line; a risky, unglamorous and thankless job at best.

With the none-too-subtle urgings to power of his wife, Elizabeth, and Tim Stamper (played by another noble actor, Colin Jeavons) as his right-hand hatchet man, Urquhart embarks on a course of whispering campaigns, planted stories, financial frame-ups, and other skullduggery to bring down the reigning PM, Henry Collingridge.  Along the way, Urquhart cultivates a protege' from the press, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), whom he toys with for both practical and personal reasons.

Though the plot and dialogue get high marks, it's the acting that really keeps you watching, and the director's trick of breaking the fourth wall.  Urquhart's asides to the camera, in which he reveals what he's really thinking while doing and saying the opposite, let Richardson's acting genius shine out to illuminate the whole tawdry game.  His trademark phrase, during his "off the record" sessions with Mattie, is "You might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment."  Richardson's delivery gives this banality a knife-twist that amplifies the chemistry between Urquhart and Mattie, as they both take advantage of each other in every sense of the phrase. 

Richardson is by turns unctuously creepy, commanding, sympathetic, disturbingly sexy in a Bela Lugosi sort of way, paternal, treacherous, brutal, cunning and far more other adjectives than most actors can squeeze out in a single storyline.  He is the perfect Iago, whispering poison in everyone's ears while appearing benign at his surface.  Suzannah Harker plays the Mattie Storin character with a skilful blend of brashness and innocent carnality.  She looks like a naive crusading journalist at the outset, but proves more than willing to brush up her skills at seduction and manipulation under Urquhart's tutelage.  There are no wholly innocent players in this game, and Francis Urquhart uses everyone's human frailties to bend or break them to his advantage.

If the series has a flaw, it's the director's naked spite towards the Conservative Party - some of his caricatures of politicians and policy are heavy-handed and obvious.   Scenes of ugly Tories get intercut too many times with images of rats skulking, though the appearances of homeless people and jobless protestors are used to better effect.

I won't go further into the plot or storyline, but if you want something that has more brain, wit and story than the usual TV gunk, sit down and watch "House of Cards".  

P.S.  I can see effective ways of re-writing this for an American audience - the political context could translate to the last couple of terms of Republican power.  Nonetheless, I can't think of any actors in the American stable who could pull off Richardson's role...  see it and tell me what you think. 

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