Review: House of Cards, Season One (1990)
On Netflix recommendation by virtue of the degree to which I enjoyed State of Play (BBC miniseries version), I rented another BBC miniseries involving political intrigue and backroom scandal. House of Cards was based on the Michael Dobbs book by the same name. Set in the late 1980s at the end of the Thatcher era, the plot follows a majority, Conservative Party whip in his attempt to wrest political position and power.
Ian Richardson plays Francis Urquhart, the whip who keeps the “back bench” in order — in other words, he’s the guy that keeps the party regulars in the House of Commons in line for the party leadership. The whip is an essential role in any parliamentary structure, including the House of Commons and the US Congress.
The portrayal of the whip’s traditionally unexercised power is convincing and believable. Urquhart has dirt on just about every other character and beats them into line for the party leadership. Where things start to skew toward dramatic intrigue is set off by Urquhart being turned down for a promotion to Home Secretary upon the election of a new PM who relied heavily on the whip’s support to get elected. Urquhart launches a grand and well thought out scheme to destroy the PM and become the front runner to replace him.
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As with State of Play, House of Cards effectively mixes journalism and politics with believable relationships and interactions. Yet House of Cards seems to be not quite in depth enough. At only four, 50 minute episodes, the miniseries doesn’t seem to get as intricate and with as developed a look at its players as it might have. While State of Play effectively develops a good six or seven characters, Richardson’s Urquhart is really the only fully manifested character.
David Lyon’s PM Henry Collingridge is really little more than a cardboard cutout character. Despite facing the sabotage set in motion by Urquhart, we see very little of what he actually goes through. Similarly, Miles Anderson’s Roger O’Neill, despite being a central character, never has his behavior truly delved into — beyond glimpses into a relationship with Penny Guy.
The character most examined after Urquhart is Susannah Harker’s Mattie Storin. Although Storin is the journalistic guide to the story rolling out and a pawn in Urquhart’s hands, we really never are given much of a look into her past or worldview other than seeing that she has serious daddy issues.
The story itself is carried through with efficiency and concise storytelling. The use of direct, conversationalist narrative with Richardson directly addressing the camera as Urquhart is questionable as a cinematic tactic, but it also works. Its structure (particularly with Urquhart’s trademark “I couldn’t possibly comment”) changes the scenes into a near-interview like glimpse into the lead character’s life and thinking.
All-in-all, House of Cards carries through quickly and well. It is an enjoyable, if not quite a very good watch. Out of ten, I’d rate it a 7.5 for ease of viewing and presentation. The political storyline, now two decades old, avoids becoming stale by retaining topical foci on the interactions of politicians, rather than the controversial issues of the day. If one enjoys political thrillers, you might like this.
I’ve added the second two ends of the House of Cards Trilogy to my Netflix queue for future viewing.