House of Cards
(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.