After a gold-plated bollocking by Margaret Thatcher, political advisor Michael Dobbs had more than a few drinks and scribbled down two letters: F.U.. That experience planted the seeds of what became his acclaimed political novel about vile British politician Francis Urquhart, which was later adapted by BBC television and is this week’s film recommendation: 1990’s House of Cards.
Andrew Davies’ scintillating script makes many changes to Dobb’s novel, but the structure of the plot is similar: Thatcher is gone and the resulting leadership fight is won by the well-meaning but ineffectual Henry Collingridge (David Lyon). Our guide to these events is Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson, who frequently speaks directly to the audience with seductive effect). Promised a cabinet post, F.U. is enraged when he is not promoted. He decides to destroy Collingridge by any means necessary, and “puts a bit of stick about” with a vengeance. His cunning plan pays off, spurring a new leadership fight, but this time around, with the encouragement of his ambitious and equally ruthless wife, he realizes that the top job is within his own grasp.
BBC hit it for six on this series, with inspired casting, acting, direction and production. Despite a 3 1/2 hour running time it’s easy to gobble up House of Cards in one or two sittings.
Dobbs worked for Thatcher, and therefore clearly didn’t have a problem with strong women. That is reflected in multiple complex, powerful female characters in the story. Susannah Harker is very good as Mattie Storin, an ambitious journalist on a Telegraph-like newspaper (which is owned by a Murdoch parody well-played by Kenny Ireland). Storin is manipulated by Urquhart and manipulates him back, struggling with one hell of a father complex along the way. Diane Fletcher is even better as Urquhart’s wife Elizabeth, played less so as a Lady MacBeth than as an equal partner in crime. I also liked Alphonsia Emmanuel (known to American audiences mainly for playing a nymphomaniac in a prior film recommendation, Peter’s Friends) as the clever-in-work-but-foolish-in-love assistant to the cocaine-addicted ex-footballer who runs the political party’s publicity operation (Miles Anderson, in a believable and sympathetic performance).
But the heart of this movie is Ian Richardson, whose work I have praised many times (see for example here, here, here and here). You could almost call House of Cards “Dracula goes to Westminster” for he gives a vampiric performance mixing surface charm and urbanity with a bloodthirsty, remorseless drive for dominance. Many people who watched this mini-series on BBC wondered how they ended up rooting at times for such an awful person; that is the genius of Richardson at work.
Here is one of many scenes in this brilliant, compulsively watchable roman à clef that captures the heartlessness of politics and its petty humiliations at the same time. The Chief Whip and his creepy assistant Stamper (Colin Jeavons, always an effective actor) have discovered that a certain back bencher is straying both in his voting plans and in his private life, and decide to solve both problems at one go.
p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.