Friday, August 16, 2013

House of Cards vs House of Cards

For my birthday, Nimbos kindly presented me with the House of Cards trilogy. I felt some trepidation putting it on; having watched the original serial transfixed in 1990, how would it bear up?

It's a majestic bit of television, bold and thrilling and with a perfect cast. The wheeze (as I'm sure you know) is that Margaret Thatcher has just left office as Prime Minister, and the Tory party are in the midst of electing a replacement – as was happening in real life as the first episode was broadcast. The new, safe-bet leader decides not to promote his Chief Whip to ministerial office but keep him in his place. The whip, Francis Urquhart, is not best pleased and begins to take his revenge while also scheming his way to the top job.

Urquhart is written and played as a mix of Macbeth and Richard III, complete with soliloquies direct to the audience that make us complicit in his scheming. Ian Richardson is brilliantly charismatic and sinister, and Diane Fletcher makes for a cool Lady Macbeth. Colin Jeavons is a deliciously grotesque aid to Urquhart, grinning obsequiously as he helps destroy lives.

The story is gripping and twisty, though I felt that someone should have noticed sooner that Urquhart is the only candidate not to suffer calamity.

There are other things that show how much has changed: a Cabinet meeting where there are no women; a candidate for Prime Minister being asked if he's too young at 55; ace reporter Mattie Storin leaving a conference in mid-flow to find a phone box where she can call in her story.

But other things seem still very much on the nose: the stark divide in the Tory party between old money grandees and the upstart self-made men; the queasy relationship between high politics and those who run the press; the sex and drugs and scandal that lurk beneath the veneer. It's cynicism about politics still feels very now.

I was also fascinated by the use of the Palace of Westminster – or rather how the production dodged round not being able to film inside the building. As so often, Manchester Town Hall has enough passing similarity to the corridors of power that most viewers wouldn't notice (and it was conveniently near the old Commons Chamber set at Granada).

The thing that most jarred was the climactic scene. Mattie meets Francis on a secret roof garden supposedly above Central Lobby, and yet it looks out onto the clock face of Big Ben with Victoria Tower just behind. That means it was filmed on the roof of what's now Portcullis House, the other side of the road from the Palace – a realisation which, pedant that I am, rather spoiled the dramatic end.

But it's striking that what makes Urquhart so compelling is not his charm or intelligence so much as his ruthlessness. He can be wrong, he can be monstrous, but we're drawn to him by his determination despite the odds. His soliloquies - where he spells out exactly what he plans to do - make us complicit and, even when in the last episode he commits the most brutal acts, we're completely on his side. The last scene is brilliant: he won't tell us what he's thinking but we don't need him to as we've got under his skin.

The Dr and I then worked our way through the recent American reworking of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey. It's a slick, thrilling production, again with a very good cast. As it comprises 13 episodes rather than four, it tells a much bigger, more complex story – and yet follows the same beats as the original and shares characters and even whole scenes. At one point we thought they'd abandoned the idea of Congressman Peter Russo following the plot line of Roger O'Neill from the original, but having digressed for a couple of episodes the story made its way back to the old path.

Apart from the running time, I think there are two main differences between the two shows. First, the American version has more women characters and gives them more to do. Urquhart's wife doesn't merely egg him on or make herself scarce as required. Zoe Barnes isn't the sole female journalist on screen, but the latest in a line of plucky women holding those in power to task. In fact, Janine Skorsky,  the older, more experienced reporter, is a brilliant addition: Zoe's development as a character is almost entirely defined by the changing way Janine treats her.

The other difference is that Urquhart and Stamper aren't nearly such clear-cut villains; they're ruthless, yes, but we also see moments of kindness and doubt. They're clearly conflicted about doing what they realise must be done. But it's more than that.

Where the UK show tells us baldly that Urquhart is aiming to be Prime Minister, the US version never quite tells us what he's scheming for. At first it looks like he wants revenge for not getting the job he wanted; then it seems he's merely trying to make a point. We're told about something he wants towards the end of the series – which I won't spoiler here – but the indications are that even that is only a stepping stone.

It ought to be obvious he's aiming to be President, especially if we know the UK version, but Urquhart never says so – not to his wife or mistress or us. That means we're never complicit, and our sympathies are divided between him and the other characters.

In fact, I think the series rather turns us against him in Episode 8. Until that point, we've had little evidence that his schemes and tricks aren't all part of political service – he works hard to get legislation passed that people seem to believe in, and the people he defeats or tricks are shown to be idiots or villains. Yes, he's ruthless but that's how you get things done, and we seem him help or just get on with ordinary everyday folk and that makes him okay.

But in Episode 8, we learn the backstories of Urquhart and Russo. Russo has had a hard life, became a congressman despite that and is still in touch with his roots. Urquhart – again without spoiling things – has been living a lie.

The episode shows that both men are more complex than they appear, but while it explains and almost excuses Russo's shortcomings, it makes us wonder what else we don't know about Urquhart. We learn not to trust him, and as a result the things he does over the next few episodes are done at a distance. That he seems hesitant only makes us less sure of him.

Is this doubt a conscious effort to make Urquhart less black and white? If so, I don't think it's an improvement.

Or, is this uncertainty inevitable given that the US version was devised as an ongoing series not a self-contained serial? Does such doubt lend itself to the greater screen time? The follow-up to the UK series, To Play The King, lost something from Urquhart being in power and seeming unassailable, and a whole season with Spacey as President would merely be a less feel-good West Wing...

So I'm optimistic for the second season if a bit disappointed by the first. But my disappointment is largely because I was very quickly caught up in the US version. It's more realistic, better at showing what politics is and how it affects people's lives, and the women get to be more than just furniture.

I'd not expected to like the translation at all, so how very disloyal is that?

1 comment:

Rob Stradling said...

I watched the whole original trilogy very recently, having seen most of it in bits but never as a whole. It's hugely enjoyable, although few writings about it mention how extraordinarily DAFT some of it is. It's really not the gritty mirror to the corridors of power that it's reputed to be at all - it's more of a macabre comedy with a fantasy ruleset. By the end of the second series, Urquhart is practically walking down Whitehall machine-gunning his enemies in the face, and everyone's still fooled.

It's quite beautifully played, though, and oh my giddy fucksticks if Susannah Harker isn't every bit as breathtaking as I remembered. The camera is so intimate with her, it sometimes feels like she's inhaling us. Mmm, yes please... [ahem!]