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Review: House of Cards, BBC Miniseries, 1990

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My goodness, how is it that nobody in either the Discworld or Potter fandoms has informed me of the brilliance of House of Cards? Fans of Vetinari will want to see this film, I guarantee you, and I should think that the Potterfans interested in Voldemort's rise and the politics of it will be intrigued as well. It's rather like The West Wing meets Macbeth, with a vaguely Brechtian twist.

The BBC miniseries "House of Cards" originally showed up in my Netflix recommendations, I can't recall why -- I think it's because I have a few of the old Sherlock Holmes programs netflixed, oddly enough. It looked like it was right up my alley, actually, so I gave it a go and I've been fairly pleasantly surprised. It concerns the rise to power of a Tory Chief Whip who schemes, blackmails, and eventually murders in his quest to become Prime Minister after the death of Margaret Thatcher (it was made in 1990; the joke is that her death is the only thing which could stop her Ministry). Apparently it's based on a book, which I am definitely going to read.

BBC puts out its share of stinkers, like any network, but when they do a thing well, by god it blows the mind. Granted, I've only seen the first four episodes of twelve -- each set of four is a self-contained part of a trilogy -- but so far it is smooth, funny, dark, occasionally frightening, and always one step ahead of the viewer. It's also highly theatrical and very...well, literate isn't the word I'm looking for, but it'll do. There are verbal and visual references to Macbeth, moments of really interesting humanity in secondary characters, and politics which were, for the time, fairly relevant.

Several times, throughout the series, Francis Urqhart (the hero and master politician masquerading as a mild "back-room boy" for Parliament) turns to the camera and delivers short monologues, self-justifications, jokes and sly commentary on his companions and opponents. It could be a clumsy narrative tool, but instead it's quite a natural movement; he always speaks to the camera as he's walking along or doing other tasks, as if we're somehow a trusted aide who just needs a little information. It's an extremely effective method not only of getting you inside the workings of Urqhart's head, but keeping you there -- making you actually root for him. As an example, at one point in the first volume of the trilogy you believe that he may have just commissioned a murder, and you actually don't want to believe it of him despite seeing all the things he's already been capable of doing. When he actually commits the murder himself, later in the series, it seems like a perfectly natural act at that juncture.

And this is the thing about Urqhart: in the best tradition of likeable villainny, not only does he have reasons for everything he does -- exceptionally good reasons, actually -- he has his own very strict personal moral code as well. He does as much of his dirty work as he can do himself. At one point he actually poses as the Prime Minister's brother in order to implicate them both in a financial scam. Both of the murders he needs done he actually commits himself; he also refuses to outright lie to the young reporter he's managed to bring under his influence. If he cannot answer truthfully, he simply says "you might think that; I couldn't possibly comment" which is invariably read as the answer the reporter is looking for rather than, perhaps, the truth. If you watch House of Cards, there is a point near the end where Urqhart is confronted by his pet journalist and he spends almost the entire scene avoiding answering her questions without appearing to do so. It's simply masterfully done.

(This is actually a very British quality. I once heard an Englishman deliver a five-minute speech of apology without ever actually saying the words "I apologise" "I'm sorry" or "I was wrong". I was the only one who noticed. Granted, he was not actually wrong and he and I both knew it, but he had to make that speech for the sake of a greater good and so he made it the only way he knew how.)

It's also oddly erotic, for a political film. There's no explicitly sexual scenes and the raciest it gets visually is one very brief shot of fingers digging into shoulderblades, though later on there's an audio-tape recording played of a terrifically unappealing night of bad sex. What makes the romantic content of the film admirable is that it's not between, say, politicians and their mistresses or the young pet journalist and her (it's only fair to say unattractive) best friend. The sexual axis of the plot is the relationship between Mattie, the journalist, and Urqhart, who is forty-five if he's a day and not the most attractive of men even if compared to his own age group.

I love that the story is willing to portray Urqhart -- an ascetic, dry, cold, and middle-aged man -- as a sexual figure, and I love that it's Mattie -- a young, pretty, ambitious twentysomething -- who is the seriously fucked up one in the relationship. At the very beginning of their affair (which Urqhart's wife has subtly given permission for) she says she can't possibly call him Francis, because she doesn't think of him that way; instead she tells him that she wants to call him Daddy and their first sexual encounter is based on this moment. The second one that the series shows, though presumably not the second one that occurs, takes place after he upbraids her for misbehaving and scolds her for being an impulsive child. It's not actually erotic in the slightest, but the longer the scene goes on, the more you realise that she's turned on by this. Urqhart knows it too, of course. That's why he did it.

There are some rough spots, it has to be said; Urqhart is so cold and dry that in the single instance he loses control it's not very well done and doesn't quite come off. I was also a little dismayed to see the typically English trope of the drunkard-fuckup-Irishman; in this case of course he's a cocaine fiend and not a drunk, but it's rather unsettling -- especially since he's also the one in an incredibly dysfunctional and abusive interracial relationship, which ends with him deliriously fantasising about taking his girlfriend to see the beautiful coast of Galway in the summertime.

It's also rather restrained and very, very long. Each film in the trilogy is composed of four episodes which are an hour each. This is good, of course, because that means there's a satisfying amount of meat to gnaw on within it, but on the other hand it takes a while to work through even the first part of the trilogy. I have vague doubts that, after the first part, the second and third parts will be able to keep up the pace. And it's definitely not something to sit down and watch if you're in the mood for an American-style action flick or thriller -- there are no explosions, gunshots, screaming women, helicopter rescues, or hidden conspiracies of secret societies. The tension simply slowly ratchets up, notch by notch, as we see everything and, at the same time, see how someone on the outside would percieve it.

Despite these minor flaws, I have to say that if you only rent one Beeb miniseries this year (and honestly, who can only rent one?) make it House of Cards.
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On September 25th, 2005 03:04 pm (UTC), xntrick commented:
The one memory that I hold of this series was when I was on the phone with my mother and we were chatting about something or other...and we both had "To Play the King" on. I won't tell you what happened during the conversation though...since you haven't gotten that far yet. ;-)
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On September 25th, 2005 03:20 pm (UTC), maple_clef commented:
You're probably right about the Holmes connection - Ian Richardson has played both Holmes and, more recently, the 'real life' Holmes Joseph Bell.

I haven't seen House of Cards for ages - I agree that it's damn good. We've got it recorded, somewhere - I shall have to dig it out again...
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On September 25th, 2005 04:14 pm (UTC), ladyvyola commented:
This is one of my favorite series of all time; I was thrilled when the 3 DVD set came out. FU is a villain for the ages (and his wife -- !)

The original book is quite different. FU is most emphatically not aristocratic (in the TV version, he talks about his family coming South with King James, IIRC) -- he's short and round and red-faced.

He and Mattie exchange fates between the two versions. What he does to her on screen at the end of House of Cards he actually does to himself in the book.

There are some very interesting conversations in To Play the King about how public opinion is shaped. FU takes on an advisor, a woman hand-picked by his wife (yes, go there -- you're meant to), who explains that she can design a poll that will return any answers he wishes. She can't make people believe anything he wants, but she certainly can make them say it. And that's really all that counts when he's fighting for power in the headlines.
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On September 25th, 2005 06:54 pm (UTC), copperbadge replied:
Hmmm -- it sounds like I probably will end up liking the series more. Still, I'm interested in how the book is structured -- I'd like to see how much of the way the story is told transfers over to the screen....

Thanks for the info, though. My interest is thoroughly piqued :D
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On September 25th, 2005 06:55 pm (UTC), copperbadge replied:
Oh, and as a note -- it's interesting that they talk about public opinion polls. It's like the drug use poll I took in undergrad -- the entire poll was about when and where you've taken drugs and if you've had negative repercussions. But there was not a single question about positive repercussions -- no questions about "did you really enjoy your experience?" amongst the "do you think your grades slipped because of your drug use" or such.
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On September 25th, 2005 04:41 pm (UTC), lazy_neutrino commented:
I remember this when it came out. Excellent stuff. You may also enjoy the more recent 'State of Play' written by Paul Abbott and shown by the BBC about a year ago. It's not as good, but still excellent stuff.

Have you seen 'Edge of Darkness, by the way? Starring Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker.
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On September 25th, 2005 06:52 pm (UTC), copperbadge replied:
I haven't seen either State of Play or Edge of Darkness -- I'll netflix 'em and if I can't find them there, I'll have a look round the 'net. :D Thanks for the recs!
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On September 26th, 2005 09:43 am (UTC), nineveh_uk replied:
Seconding State of Play (directed by David Yates, shortly to direct OotP), even if it believes a bit too much in the Pure Dedication of journalists to The Truth. It’s about to be remade as a Hollywood film, which could be interesting.
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On September 25th, 2005 04:45 pm (UTC), shezan commented:
Aaaahhh, I like HoC no end, even if it's a little cliché'd liberal for my taste. But if you assume morality in FU, you're missing the point; what he has respect for is competence and he does things himself because, of course, it's the only way not to leave fingerprints. And he lies cheerfully time and again; his "You might very well think that..." is just a way of drawing Mattie (who's, frankly, rather embarrassing entirely too often - but then I was a journalist pf her age in London at the time ) into the assumùption of shared secrets & complicity.

The asides, which I love, are a typical theatre trick; British TV is a lot closer to a theatrical tradition wich is any way so far superior to anywhere else in the world that they can throw such little fireworks with élan.

And the book ain't a patch on the TV series, so have no regrets.
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On September 25th, 2005 06:51 pm (UTC), copperbadge replied:
Well, I'm not assuming conventional morality -- just that he has his own special brand of it. He does lie, that's true, but the important part is that he doesn't lie to HER. I started noticing when he started using "you might very well think that" as a method of avoiding actually answering a question, instead of avoiding being quoted.

I do think that the reason I like British shows better than American is that they stick closer to the theatre. *nods* I'm glad I saw the series first in this case, because it does sound like the series is better than the book. I'm interested in the way the book is laid out, though, considering the structure of the movie, so I probably will pick it up eventually. :D
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On September 25th, 2005 04:51 pm (UTC), ter369 commented:
"You might say that. I couldn't possibly ..."

Or whatever his non-speak phraseology is. I'll watch anything with Ian Richardson, and I feel lucky to have seen him onstage.

Probably your flist didn't mention the series to you because it was first on before many of us were on LJ. I had no idea it was on DVD, because I definitely want to see it again -- when my jaw isn't dropping at the writing and the characterizations.

That was the last series I watched on Masterpeice Theatre. It was so good that the next few series seemed flat.
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On September 26th, 2005 02:41 am (UTC), hobbitblue commented:
I prefered To Play the King, but I agree its all good..
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On September 26th, 2005 02:26 pm (UTC), ladyvyola commented:
P.S. When you finish To Play the King and The Final Cut, revisit your paragraph about the elements of an American-style action flick or thriller.
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On September 26th, 2005 05:42 pm (UTC), copperbadge replied:
ROFL, will I have to eat my words?
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On September 26th, 2005 10:50 pm (UTC), ladyvyola replied:
You might think that; I couldn't possibly comment... for that would be a spoiler! (And the mob might come after me.)
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