Skip to main content

Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes.


House of Cards
Season One

(SPOILERS) Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that David Fincher’s US adaptation of House of Cards is so full-blooded; this is Netflix’s prestigious inaugural production, and they understandably want to make an impression. As such, there are no qualms over the depiction of sex, violence and substance abuse (all present and correct in Andrew Davies’ BBC version of Michael Dobbs’ novel). More than that, it’s a seductive, sumptuous production. David Fincher helmed the first two episodes, and his meticulous craftsmanship sets the tone for next eleven.

There are a few missteps along the way, but the series gets far more very right than it trips up on. The West Wing may be acclaimed as a bastion of intelligent US political drama, but I could never stomach the lack of cynicism of its characters and their genuineness towards the moral conundrums they faced. An Oval Office awash with moral earnestness was an arse-backwards, antithetical approach to the corridors of power. So, while there’s little argument that Beau Willimon (who wrote the play Farragut North, adapted by George Clooney as The Ides of March) doesn’t have Aaron Sorkin’s way with dialogue, the series is already ahead of its most obvious contender by taking “power corrupts absolutely” as its starting point.

There are both benefits and drawbacks in expanding the four-hour BBC serial to three times that length. The world of Washington is given a chance to breathe, and characters achieve greater dimensionality and depth; the most obvious in this regard is Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), whose role in the original develops deliciously (as such, I expect Fincher and Willimon will follow that outline), but here we get to see a clear mirroring of Francis Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) ruthlessness in the way Claire deals with her own business interests. The greatest success of the series is the depiction, and casting, of Frank and Claire.

The cold clarity of their slow burning Faustian pact echoes Macbeth, but at this point with none of the intrusive guilt to undermine it; they are rock solid when it comes to ambitions. Which means that sometimes the dramatic hiccups introduced feel a little contrived; Frank continually putting his own interests above those of Claire is reason enough for her to undermine his plans through a deal with Remy (the lobbyist for a natural gas company). But her on-off affair (surely the most instructive element of the Underwoods’ relationship is the practicality with which each accepts the other’s infidelities) with British artist Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels. rumoured twelfth Doctor Who) is dramatically stagnant. So too, the menopausal Claire’s reflection on a (possibly) lost chance at motherhood perhaps humanises her too much; she moves a bit too close to a predictable character with predictable feelings, Willimon should never lose sight of the satirical backbone of Dobbs and Davies’ original. The further development of her ice queen puppeteer qualities might have been more engaging; she’s the only one who knows how to control Frank, so her behaviour ought to be even more calculating and shrewd than his. Claire should come into her own if they follow the gist of the sequels, but either way Wright is a revelation in the role. Not because we didn’t know she’s a great actress but because she really has a chance to show it, and consistently.

Frank is objectively the juicier part, and Spacey seizes it with all the malevolent relish you’d expect. But Wright is his unquestionable equal in every scene, both in terms of the characters and her ability to hold the attention. Spacey’s Southern accent is distracting for maybe 10 minutes, but in every other respect he’s the equal to Ian Richardson’s Urquhart. This is his first big starring role in nearly a decade (theatre has distracted him) and his every moment is a delight. One wonders if the producers had the conversation about whether or not to address camera (as some viewers will doubtless find such fourth wall breaking distracting, and the novel is not in the first person), but this is an essential part of the make-up of the series. It lends the proceedings a Shakespearian elegance; we are the confidantes of the confident Underwood, and we relish his corruption all the more because he is so personable and intimate with us. His splenetic aside, “I’m not going to lie – I despise children” after one causes him to scald his hand is both shocking and caustically funny. The key is to make us root for him despite his attitudes and behaviour, and Spacey delivers that completely. When the wind is knocked out of his sails during a TV debate, we feel the pain of his embarrassment and, when his political opponents score points off him, we root for their downfall.

It will be interesting to see how and if the pangs of guilt begin to afflict him in future seasons. In the original, Urquhart pushes journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) off a building. The essentials of Underwood’s relationship with journo Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) are intact, but the decision to keep her alive seems like a bit of a cop-out at first glance. True, To Play the Kingintroduces a semi-replacement, so it might be argued the producers are avoiding an obvious repetition, but it’s difficult to see Underwood being hit by regret for killing Russo (Corey Stoll). It was killing Mattie, not O’Neill (Russo’s equivalent) that stirred up Urquhart.

I have to admit that, good actress as she is, I don’t find Mara as compelling as Harker in the original. The chemistry between Richardson and Harker isn’t there between Spacey and Mara; instead, it crackles between Spacey and Wright. Allowing Zoe to live also affects the tension of the final episode of the season. There needed to be a gut-punch, but what we get is sub-All the President’s Men whispering on stairwells. I’m unsure if we’re supposed to see this as a bit silly on their part (as we know the limits of the conspiracy), but there’s little drama in seeing the intrepid journalists unearth the very information we’ve been watching all season. Constance Zimmer has a stronger presence than Mara, as journalist colleague Janine, but the attempts to flesh out the characters elsewhere lead to rote subplots (Zoe’s relationship with Lucas).

The BBC original ended on a double-whammy (Urquhart accedes to Number 10, Mattie is murdered but a telltale tape lives on); here we only have Underwood being offered the Vice-Presidency. The realisation by the journalists of his plans at the same time that they reach fulfillment just doesn’t have much impact. On the other hand, it makes good sense for Underwood not to claim the presidency yet. To Play the King sees him engaged in an adversarial game with the new regent. There’s no obvious contender for that role in the US political landscape, so I’d assume the President himself will be the antagonist (with Underwood becoming President for Season Three?)

The seeds for other developments to follow the original have been planted; one can quite see the loyal Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, outstanding and far better served here than in Person of Interest) becoming increasingly uneasy with the toxic stew being brewed up by Frank. I suspect that the visit to Frank’s old military school will be revisited as it plants the seeds for a chink in his armour (a youthful passion with Tim Corbet’s character). But as broadcast it is perilously closer to a filler episode, and backstory that has (as with Claire) a bit too much of “We need to humanise Frank”; he should be a monster and, as noted, there are times when the satire is subdued in favour of more traditional dynamics. Given the Frank (it appears) did not see actual military service, at least one of the plot threads of The Final Cutwill presumably not come into play.

Corey Stoll is a close third to Spacey and Wright for outstanding performance of the season. Peter Russo is tragically damaged goods, and even his apparent victories are deluded ones; he feels too much to succeed at the power game. Speaking of which, the influence of the lobbyists is a particularly strong addition to this iteration of the series, with any given proposal subject to their approval. Sakina Jaffrey’s Chief of Staff is also very strong.

Technically, the series is flawless; you'd expect nothing less from Fincher. The production design and cinematography are as elegantly refined as Jeff Beal's deceptively simple theme (the Washington time-lapse opening credits perfectly complement the composition and together they become a touchstone to look forward to, rather than fast-forward).

So far House of Cards is an outstanding example of the right way to adapt/remake material. It takes the skeleton, but isn’t beholden to its source, and the opportunities offered for a fresh interpretation (by the differences between the UK and US political systems and the two decades-plus since it was produced) grant it a legitimate claim to be completely its own beast.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c