House of Cards

HouseofCardsposterShown: 2013
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara

An American retelling of a very British classic

If you were involved in British politics in the late 80s and early 90s then you couldn’t fail to be hooked on the TV adaptation of the Michael Dobbs novel House of Cards. Every political party member and amateur debater who thought they were being clever answered any question asked of them with “You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.” The original 1990 series and its two follow ups To Play The King and The Final Cut remain high water marks for British television drama and Ian Richardson’s portrayal of scheming politician Francis Urquhart is one of the great TV performances of all time.

When Netflix announced that it was producing a remake of the classic series set in Washington I was very sceptical. House of Cards was a very British programme and I wasn’t sure that the understated nature of Urquhart or the black humour would transfer very well to the more forthright nature of American politics that we’re used to seeing portrayed in films and TV programmes such as The West Wing.

Kevin Spacey plays Francis Underwood, the majority whip in Congress who sees his dream of being Secretary of State to the new President shattered when he is passed over for the post. This snub sets off a chain of events which sees Underwood plotting to take his place at the top of government using a weak Congressmen, a troubled young prostitute, a rookie journalist and an education bill to get his way. Talking directly to camera Underwood brings the audience directly into his world and makes us co-conspirators in his increasingly vicious plotting.

Costing £100m for the thirteen part series and produced by David Fincher (who also directed the first two episodes) this was always going to be a stylish production. House of Cards looks good, very good. Netflix’s first foray into developing its own output certainly has high production standards, although it’s obvious that much of the money raised was through sponsorship and product placement deals. Not five minutes passes without the Apple logo smacking you in the face. I’m an Apple floozy but even I was getting a bit fed up with it all. On the plus side – no ad breaks and the ability to watch online or through the Playstation (other methods are of course available…)

Kevin Spacey is brilliant as Underwood. He oozes charm and menace in equal measure and is easily believable as the epitome of all that is wrong in politics. The rest of the main cast is also very good. Robin Wright as the cold-hearted wife Claire Underwood is particularly impressive – I had a look at her IMDB entry and she seems to be a great example of an actress who puts paid to the lie that no good roles go to women over 40. It seems to me that since she hit 40 she’s been getting some of her best roles. Kate Mara is fabulous as journalist Zoe Barnes and offers a nice counterpoint to Claire Underwood as the two women in Frank’s life.

While the basic premise is the same as the British version of House of Cards and there are plenty of nods to the original, anyone looking for a carbon copy is going to be bitterly disappointed. Frank Underwood is much more openly scheming than Francis Urquhart and the tightly constructed 4 episodes has been stretched to a 13-part series which doesn’t quite reach a conclusion. This is a series which remains faithful to the spirit of the original rather than a pure remake and it succeeds because it isn’t a carbon copy of its British forebear.

This isn’t quite perfect, it rambles a little in the middle and loses its way a tiny bit. The storyline focusing on Claire’s environmental charity feels superfluous and a couple of episodes that stray from the main narrative seem like time-fillers but for the most part, largely due to Spacey’s excellent performance this is a superior television drama and is well worth a watch. Even for those of us who know that the original will never be bettered.

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