Weekend Film Recommendation: House of Cards

18522215_richardson_377985bAfter 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.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

BRITAIN-GUINNESS-007If I were BBC Director-General, and had been granted only 24 broadcast hours to make the case to the nation and its elected officials that my organisation was capable of greatness, I would immediately fill the first 315 minutes of my schedule with this week’s film recommendation: 1979′s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

This is what a television mini-series can do that is virtually impossible in the movie theater: Tell a long, complex, intimate story over a series of episodes that hang together, and in which the audience being forced to wait for the resolution adds to the exquisite tension of the tale. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also the apotheosis of what BBC can do better than any other organisation when it sets its mind to it: Trawl through the British theater for stage-trained, perfectly cast actors to play parts large and small, give them a quintessentially British script, and spend a TV-level budget in just the right way to get the sets and production that are “tailor made” (sorry, couldn’t pass that up) for the story. The result is BBC television magic.

The plot: The aging head of the British Secret Service, dogged by a series of espionage failures and declining health, sends out a trusted agent on a mission to Czechoslovakia that will help smoke out a high-level mole who is working for the Soviets. The mission goes horribly wrong, almost as if the enemy knew of it in advance. A different group of agents ascends to control of the service, and casts out along the way faithful, long-serving head of personnel George Smiley. But the politician who oversee the service believes the mole is still active, and recruits Smiley out of retirement to covertly investigate his former colleagues. With glum professionalism, and the aid of an embittered assassin who has been demoted, he slowly draws on the loose strings that he hopes will lead him to the mole’s identity.

I am no expert on Le Carré, but his passionate fans embraced this production as assiduously faithful to the book. Indeed, the man himself said that after viewing the mini-series, he could no longer think about Smiley without visualizing Alec Guinness.

Many people say Sir Alec was “born to play” spymaster George Smiley. But people said that about many of the parts he played in his career, a tribute to his genius as an actor. I love all the small things he does in this movie: Wiping his glasses on his tie, locking his flat door behind him without looking, wincing almost imperceptibly at the mention of his wayward wife. And he never commits the dramatic error of trying to make Smiley normal or likable. As his former wife says to him in the crucial final scene, he doesn’t understand life very well at all, he is strangely emotionally detached and not someone you’d want to have over to dinner. Unlike many of the people around him, he still seems to hold his country in some regard, but even that explanation doesn’t seem to fully explain why he takes on the difficult mission which he is assigned.

I frankly think this movie is no less enjoyable if you know in advance (from the book or from prior viewings) the mole’s identity. The story is about institutional rot, collective lassitude and endemic careerism. Yes, one man is particularly guilty but in various ways, every one of the key suspects has much of which to be ashamed.

Director John Irvin was at the peak of his skills in the late 1970s, helming this series and The Dogs of War immediately afterwards. His career seemed to stall after those two triumphs, but he certainly delivers the goods here. Irvin had a champagne cast with which to work, not just Guinness. The actors are so uniformly fine that it seems an injustice to single out particular performers, but I will nonetheless take the risk to applaud Ian Richardson as Deputy Director Bill Haydon, who defeats Smiley in bureaucratic battles and does something even more horrid to him on the home front. How in the name of The Queen, St. Michael and St. George was this magnificent actor never knighted? Perhaps it was the suddenness of his death when he seemed in rude health…if so that’s a case for honoring people when they deserve it rather than waiting until they are “old enough”.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a million miles from the heroic James Bond-sort of secret agent picture. There are no car chases, fist fights or explosions. There instead is the gritty, slimy work of espionage, the grind of a meticulous investigation and the guessing and re-guessing of who can be trusted and who is a villain. Yet even with a running time of more than 5 hours, it never loses the viewer’s interest. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some people who own it on DVD devour it in one or two sittings.

p.s. I am given to understand that the US rebroadcast version of this mini-series is shorter than the UK original and also makes some narrative changes. Not having viewed it, I do not know how it compares to the version I review here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Porterhouse Blue

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, think how much harm a lot of it could do. That’s the animating spirit of the academically-challenged but gastronomically-unmatched Cambridge college of Porterhouse, as portrayed in this week’s film recommendation: 1987′s Porterhouse Blue.

Based on Tom Sharpe’s satirical novel of the same name, this television mini-series centers on the longest-serving employee of the college, Skullion (the beloved British actor Sir David Jason). He and the senior fellows must cope with an ambitious nincompoop, Sir Godber Evans (Ian Richardson), who has been cast off from politics and made the new master of the school. Godber’s motto is “Alteration without change”, but he is an uxorious man very much under the heel of his titled harridan of a wife (Barbara Jefford). She insists that — gasp — women be admitted to Porterhouse! In this and in a hundred other ways, the new arrivals war with the traditionalists, with both sides being played perfectly by the cast for self-puncturing guffaws.

Richardson and Jason sparkle as the leads, as does Charles Gray as a rich, perverted old boy and John Sessions as the one person at Porterhouse who seems keen to get an education. His character, Zipser (allegedly the author’s self-parody), is one of British film’s great comic schmucks. His thesis is on “Pumpernickel as a factor in the politics of 16th century Westphalia”. He is awkward, sexually frustrated and obsessed with the flirtatious older woman who serves as his bedder (Paula Jacobs). His misadventures trying first to obtain — and then to dispose of — several gross of johnnies is uproariously funny.

Fair warning about this movie. If you don’t know anything about Oxbridge life, British society more generally, and can’t make out dog Latin, I would bet that at first Porterhouse Blue could be slow going. But stick with it, because it gets funnier and more accessible as it moves along.

p.s. I have been looking for years for a full translation of the Flying Pickets’ spirited rendition of the ridiculous and delightful Porterhouse college theme song. I have found translations of the first verse, but never the full song. If anyone can point me to a full translation, I would be extraordinarily grateful.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of Keith’s prior recommendations.