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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: House of Cards”

  1. Of course the whole thing is modeled on Richard III, which is why F.U. makes those direct asides to the audience telling them, "Here is my fiendish plan." Richardson was a fine Shakespearian for much of his career and Richard III was one of his best-known roles.

    Is the American version with Kevin Spacey good in your opinion? Spacey also played Richard III and he is one of the best in the business at his craft, but I have not seen any of the American episodes; if you think that it is as good as the British version I will look for it on DVD.

    Of course, I will understand if you couldn't possibly comment.

  2. Thanks for acknowledging this jewel.

    The recent US re-make is weak in comparison…as is usual for re-makes.

    Just compare the casts.

    This also happened withTraffik…..great Brit series that was then dumbed down to a US movie.

    1. Okay, but remember that the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon was the third film adaptation of Hammett’s novel.

  3. I watched the first couple episodes of the US version and admired the acting, especially by Wright and Spacey. But I also thought "Why bother?". There is nothing new there either relative to the original or a dozen other DC dramas, So I went back and re-watched the original, leading to this recommendation.

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