miniseries: “House of Cards”

And just in time for the holidays, in we go for a deliciously guilty pleasure, this BBC trilogy–and above all Ian Richardson in the role of a lifetime, not only career-defining but for my money genre-defining.

As Francis Urquhart–“FU” to press, colleagues, and enemies alike–the amiable and devious mid-level political henchman (do we still use that word?) become prime minister become global nemesis, Mr. Richardson becomes first the master politician, then the Force of Nature. As per Mencken, he is one of those upon whom nothing is lost, and in the first part of the trilogy, you watch him absorbing tactics like a sponge. He is extremely old school, dressing brilliantly, speaking brilliantly, and brilliantly cold while seeming quite perfectly warm. All the while confirming others’ shrewd guesses in no manner his enemies or press can use: “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Some special mentions.

  • The tenth episode, especially in its first 15 minutes, is the finest brief tutorial on political maneuvering I’ve seen on film–or anywhere.
  • The numerous scenes depicting PMQs (Questions to the Prime Minister, wherein the PM responds to and parries with members of the House of Commons, particularly the opposition, standing to face and answer them directly) are exhilarating. Yes, these script dialogs are surely idealized, but especially an American must wonder at the relevance, high literacy, and articulateness of such political discourse compared to their own.
  • Ian Richardson addresses the viewer directly with at first alarming frequency. Don’t worry, it’s part of the introduction–dare I say seduction–process. It may even cause you to worry about your own real immunity to intelligent charm of this relentless intensity, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Then, at first hardly noticed, a dissonance creeps in. Standing next to a deep-thinking career diplomat, Urquhart appears…superficial? Could this be? And then a comment is just a bit more sadistic than even serves his ambition. He becomes careless, loses trains of thought, obsesses about outdoing Thatcher’s era. As a menace to himself it’s only deserved, but when it becomes a menace to others and he a bit doting, no this won’t do, and the system won’t accept it. The series conclusion that seems at first melodramatic is the only practical end, and a well-constructed mirror of the third trilogy part’s opening, wherein FU chats up the viewer behind his country home while shooting and burying an old dog that has simply lived beyond utility.

(About the production values: occasionally cheesy, as typical of the period, c.f. Wiseguy in the US. And the Netflix Streaming version I saw suffered a ghastly green cast, probably a video transfer problem. A DVD copy, if you can find one, might be better. But either way, don’t let it stop you.)

Ian Richardson, Shakespearean career notwithstanding, was born to this role and possesses it entirely; for twelve hours he looks, speaks, winks, thunders, and connives as Francis Urquhart, and you cannot take your eyes from him.

I know. TV. Still…Five Stars.

“House of Cards” trilogy, BBC miniseries (three groups of 4 50-minute episodes), BBC, 1990.

Comments are closed.