Monday, December 10, 2012

"House of Cards" (1990)

"You might well think that. I couldn't possibly comment."

In "House of Cards", Francis Urquhart, performed by Ian Richardson, plays one of the most deliciously evil characters I've ever had the pleasure of watching. Urquhart plays Conservative Chief Whip in the British Parliament and by his own admittance "puts a bit of stick about" to keep his fellow MPs in line. We begin in medias res after the polls have closed on the most recent election to determine whether the Conservative party will stay in power. Urquhart has helped to secure the PM position for his colleague Henry Collingridge with the understanding that a Cabinet position will be in his future. The Conservatives are re-elected but when the PM apologizes that he won't be able to follow through on his end of the bargain, Urquhart's bitter pettiness and ambition gets the better of him and he decides to destroy Collingridge and take the PM position for his own.

Made in the 90s by the BBC, this miniseries looks dated. From the clothes to the hair to the cars to the grainy cinematography, it hasn't aged well. If you can put that aside though you won't care if someone's wearing a scrunchy or if their pants look like it's Hammer Time. Instead, you will bask in the glorious crackling dialogue that shimmers throughout the miniseries. Most of the best lines are uttered by Urquhart who rattles off clever and contemptuous quips as easily as breathing.

Ian Richardson is perfection in this role. Rather than playing a normal 'snake in the grass' bad guy, Urquhart is far more of a vulture, circling from above, waiting for his machinations to pay off or for his colleagues to implode and then swooping in to straighten things up. He is smart, well-spoken and knows his limits, a dangerous combination. He has a calm demeanor and a cold-blooded personality with a will of steel, showing little to no emotion other than glee at the misfortune of others, of which he's been the cause. Altogether he creates a magnificent villain that despite his villainy, you end up rooting for in the end. The wreckage left in his wake means nothing to him or the audience. You won't want to see him caught or brought to justice, I know I didn't, even if he's committed terrible crimes and ruined people's lives, tarnishing the reputation of politicians who were once his colleagues. Richardson is that good and his peers seemed to think so as well, awarding him a BAFTA (a British Oscar) for his part.

Mattie Storen is the (un)lucky reporter personally chosen by Urquhart as an unwitting accomplice. He leaks clues about decisions made behind closed doors and possibly scandalous information and lets her put two and two together. The result being stories in a national newspaper that paint Collingridge in a bad light. Storen is a complex character. After losing her father at a young age she's developed an Electra complex, leading to her infatuation with Urquhart. She insists on calling him "Daddy" and admits to being in love with him. If this wasn't disturbing enough, Urquhart's wife fully endorses the idea of taking down the PM and gives permission for Urquhart to seduce Storen to bind her more closely to him and to possibly discredit her if she goes rogue. The series has a very Macbeth feel to it but don't be fooled; Urquhart is far more clever than the Thane of Cawdor.

Knowing very little about how British politics works I was somewhat lost when they were talking about the election process and how a party leader is nominated. For the most part though I glossed over what I didn't understand and it didn't detract from the story.

One of my favourite parts was when Urquhart had these little fourth wall asides with the audience as if he was explaining the situation to a friend or possibly his conscience. These give us insights into his character that wouldn't normally come to light in dialogue or exposition.

I would highly recommend this if you're looking for a good story. The acting is great and Richardson makes for one great bad guy, definitely in my top ten.

It's also important to note that the British do television very well. So well in fact that Americans keep copying them. Those Yanks do this backwards though because instead of just buying the rights to these shows and exposing Americans to great tv from across the pond they decide to do their own version and "Americanize" it. For example, the US is putting on their own version of this miniseries. It's going to star Kevin Spacey, a great choice and will involve American politics. We'll see how much it's sensationalized.

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