The Godfather: Peter Corris on House of Cards
Most days I watch a film on television, occasionally two. They don’t have any marked effect on me as far as I can tell. The poor or indifferent ones I forget about immediately; the better ones I might think about for a day or two, enjoy remembering a scene or a line, but that’s about it.
So I was very surprised at the effect the US series House of Cards had on me as I watched it over about five days. My daughter Sofya, who writes and directs films and knows good stuff when she sees it, recommended it to me. For those not familiar with it, the series follows the career of Frank Underwood, a Congressman in the US House of Representatives. Frank, a southerner, is the majority leader and Whip of the Democrats in the House. That’s a powerful position but not nearly powerful enough for him, having been double-crossed by the President and his advisers by being denied the position of Secretary of State he’d been promised. Henceforth, with loyalty to no one but himself, he will use anybody to achieve his ambition which, as becomes clear, is the Presidency.
The series is based on the 1989 novel of the same name by Michael Dobbs and was originally shown in 1990 as a UK mini-series, setting the action in Westminster, as in the book.
The US version stars Kevin Spacey as Underwood, Robin Wright as his equally go-getting wife Claire and Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes, a manipulative and manipulated journalist. It follows the plot line of the BBC series fairly closely at times but deviates often to remain faithful to American politics and mores.
Ian Richardson gave a brilliant performance in the original series as Francis Urquhart. The technique of having this ruthless character speak directly to the camera is followed by Spacey. A risky strategy, it works well, giving the viewer access to the emotions and motivations of the character insofar as he is willing or able to reveal them.
Urquhart often employed the line, ‘You may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.’ A very English-sounding phrase, Spacey uses it only once in an early episode but with compelling effect. As with the best actors, his sideways glances, slight nods and body language speak volumes.
I became hooked after seeing the first few episodes and was impatient when the next disks were out on loan at the DVD outlet.
Whether the show is an accurate depiction of the operation of American politics I don’t know, but I suspect it is, perhaps allowing for dramatic enhancement. It’s very nasty; the system appears to operate to the advantage of its members rather than that of the people it’s supposed to serve. Worse than here, although here it’s bad enough, as recent events have shown.
As with most modern films, given my poor eyesight and hearing difficulties, I sometimes have trouble with dark scenes and quick American-accented dialogue, but I can’t remember appreciating a TV series as much since The Sopranos or the first series of Boardwalk Empire.
That’s the upside. Recently, half-awake, half-asleep, first thing in the morning, I found myself mentally merged into the character of Frank Underwood. I shared his tensions and anxieties and was greatly relieved when I came fully awake and found it wasn’t so.
I’ll have to be careful when I come to watch the second series, perhaps by spacing the episodes out a bit to reduce the psychological impact.