221 of 228 people found the following review helpful
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The Brits may no longer rule the world, but they sure produce some of the best television the medium has seen. In any discussions of the best projects or series in television history, this trilogy will have a place.
The series opens with Conservative Party Whip, Francis Urquhart, fondly holding a portrait of Margaret Thatcher, remarking that all things, no matter how good, must come to an end. This perfectly sets the time and tone of what is to follow. Urquhart must maneuver and control the political scene in the power vacuum left by the exit of the Iron Lady.
This production strives for Shakespearean proportions, and hits the bull's eye. The main character, Urquhart, played by Ian Richardson, is a crafty blend of Macbeth and King Richard. Like Macbeth, Urquhart has a power hungry wife gently messaging his shoulders and whispering pretty treacheries in his ear; and like Richard, Urquhart takes the viewer into his confidence, revealing his black plans with wicked joy. This technique of Urquhart speaking directly to you, the viewer, is a tremendous stroke. Like with King Richard, you will find yourself somehow cheering for this cold, angular blade of a man, as he slices through well-meaning fools and bumbling bullies alike (or, as Urquhart says, "put a bit of stick about").
A great production throughout, with wonderful writing and acting. Highly recommended. --Mykal Banta
162 of 167 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2003
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Wonderful adaptation of the Michael Dobbs "House of Cards" trilogy. Ian Richardson plays Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip of the Conservative Government, who schemes his way to Number Ten through blackmail, backroom deals, and sheer gall. The second volume, "To Play the King" shows Urquhart up against the newly crowned King (Michael Kitchen, who does a wonderful take on Prince Charles, really stealing the show) with Britain not big enough for the two of them. "The Final Cut" shows Urquhart hanging on against the wiles of the younger generation, while Diane Fletcher, as Urquhart's loyal, Lady-Macbeth-like wife, has her greatest acting moments.
Well cast, well directed, and with three thrilling political stories. However, this series would be nothing without Richardson, who amazes. Perhaps the best moments are when he breaches the fourth wall by talking to, or simply raising an eyebrow to, the viewer. While we could never approve of the things "F. U." does, it is hard not to love the character, as brought to full-color life by Richardson.
The only extra given on the DVDs, other than cast biographies, is a short BBC segment discussing the controversy over "To Play The King", or, to be more specific, over a line which some felt implied that the King used to send out for prostitutes (in context, it clearly does not, it implied he sent out for well-born ladies who would feel it their duty to come).
Each DVD contains four 50 minute episodes, so it is a good buy.
63 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2003
This is an irresistible series, propelled forward by the exquisite winking-at-the-camera performance of Ian Richardson. Francis Urquhart provides a once-in-a-lifetime role for Richardson and he, exceptional actor that he is, makes the very most of it.
In fact, he makes a truly evil character so attractive that you find yourself rooting for him against your better instincts. At least, that's true for the first episode, before the extent of his monstrous nature becomes apparent. One gets entirely caught up in the behind-the-scenes machinations of this man-who-would-be-prime-minister.
The tone set by the first episode's shocking finish continues in "To Play the King," a fine and exciting sequel. Francis Urquhart (his initials are used to comic effect in the drama's newspaper headlines) goes head-to-head with the King, obviously modeled on Prince Charles.
The DVD for this installment has a bonus: An interview with writer Andrew Davies on the BBC. Judging by this segment, British talk show audiences aren't much higher on the IQ scale than their U.S. equivalents. Much of the audience is hostile to Davies -- who did extremely good work here (as he did on his more popular "Pride and Prejudice") -- because they entirely miss the show's ironic stance. It's great to have this extra feature, although a commentary track with Davies or Richardson (or both) would have been even better.
Finally, the trilogy ends with "The Final Cut." The tone really shifts in this one, and I have to say it's the least successful installment. Richardson no longer seems to be enjoying himself as much, although perhaps it's just that he's portraying a much more tired Urquhart. The pace is slower, the suspense is a bit more contrived, and the new characters are less interesting. Still, it succeeds in bringing the series to a suitably dramatic close.
If you're a fan of British drama or politics (or great acting, for that matter), don't hesitate. Snatch up this DVD set.
164 of 183 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2004
Me watching this took on the manner of a voracious animal consuming its prey. The entire trilogy is beautifully done, magnificiently produced, and the acting is simply incomparable.
The HOUSE OF CARDS, the first season, is quite clearly the best. The wit, the plot, the sheer malignancy of it is just pure delight. I worked briefly at the House of Commons, and I thought the presentation of Parliament and Westminster politics was brilliant. I don't think there is anything equal to the cynicism on display here, as France Urquhart (Ian Richardson) cheerfully outmaneuvers and destroys his political opponents (his colleagues within his party). The mockery of the British political system is right on. Richardson has these asides to the audience that work perfectly, and heighten the hilarity. It's what something like WAG THE DOG wishes it could be for American politics, but unfortunately American audiences don't always have the political sophistication to enjoy this level of satire. *****
TO PLAY THE KING has Urquhart as Prime Minister (known appropriately by the initials FU), master of his domain. The arc in this series focuses on the place of the monarchy in the constitutional system, with many asides on homosexuality in politics, manipulation of the press, exploitation of disaters, and the staging of politically convenient terrorist attacks. Not as good as the first season by any measure, however, Urquhart's systematic destruction of the King (a brilliant Michael Kitchen) masterfully communicates some of the political tensions built into Britain's constitution. This season generated a lot of controversy with the British public, many of whom thought it was intentionally and excessively disrespectful to the monarchy (see the DVD extras). All in all, the writing doesn't have the same degree of biting and wit, although Richardson's performance is still on the money. ****
THE FINAL CUT is the unforunate third season, and takes on the character of Shakespeare's RICHARD III, but makes it tedious. Richardson's vicious asides to the audience are almost totally absent, which relieves him of his charm. It's not nearly as funny or interesting, and seems to meander along until its excessive and fairly overwrought ending. The spirit of cynicism is tries to maintain takes on a certain unreality, and this robs it of the delicious aspect of the first season. By the end, this version of Britain is so remote that it just isn't plausible or engaging. We are basically reduced to watching the antics of some banana republic, but with Westminster Palace in the background. **
So respectively five stars, four stars, and two stars; averaging out to just over 3.6, I will round up as the kindly teachers of my childhood instructed me, and thus four stars for the set.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2004
I won't rehash the plot, but the real appeal here is Ian Richardson's breaking of the fourth wall. He forces us all to admit that evil can be so fun, and that sometimes the wrong thing to do is completely the right thing.
I had read that Richardson wouldn't agree to end the series if F.U. didn't eventually meet his demise. I concur that The Final Cut (the third episode in the set) is by far the weakest, and a politically correct cop-out, but the devilish pleasures of the first two installments more than make up for its mawkishness. The same fascination with evil allows us to feel superior when Francis finally meets his end in the last volume.
I have to recommend that you buy the whole set to see the complete story, but I'll bet that your repeat viewings will be of the first volume only. It is so awfully, spanking good that you may be shocked at how good you feel about leaving your conscience behind.
Wish I could make this review relevant to current political times in the U.S., but this series exists solely as a British animal. Its appeal is grounded in the parliamentary system. It's all very Britishly perverse, especially the sexcapades of middle-aged politicians and royals. Pour yourself a Guiness and enjoy the ugliness. You might not think it's appropriate...I couldn't possibly comment.
32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2005
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This is without a doubt, one of the very best dramatic series I have ever seen. Why on earth hasn't Masterpeice Theater replayed it? Given what PBS has recently gone through with its governing board and accusations of "liberal bias", perhaps it's understandable that they don't want to be seen to be criticizing our political masters, but the point has already been made. Why leave it up to mealy-mouthed special-effects fests like "Retread of the Sith", when works like this do so with so much more poise and precision?
The House of Cards series combines superlative acting skills with pointed commentary on power, ambition and politics. Three great scripts (I disagree with those who say Part 3 was weaker than the others, but more on this below), and superb directing and acting make this the highlight of my summer viewing for sure. For US viewers, this series is as excellent as the Sopranos, and Homicide and for similar reasons (interesting characters, wonderful actors and compelling plot lines).
*General spoiler alert*
This series is many things to many people, but it is to my mind, first and foremost a Shakespearean drama. Screenwriter Andrew Davies makes this quite clear in his discussions of the series. To that end, the most important thing in the series is our villain and his arc from charming, ruthless monster to cornered animal.
How sad that Ian Richardson hasn't been given the chance to display his incredible acting talents to a wider audience. His portrayl of the caiman-like Conservative politician Francis Urquhart captured the simultaneously mesmerizing and sheer evil quality of Urquhart beautifully (Richardson won a BAFTA in 1991 for House of Cards and was nominated again in 1993 for To Play the King, and again in 1996 for The Final Cut). Richardson's training in theater (he was with the Royal Shakespeare Company for 15 years) stand him in excellent stead here, but the most compelling pieces of acting he does are often expressed with no more than a glance at the camera, or a lifted eyebrow or corner of the mouth. The man's a genius in my humble opinion.
House of Cards has had an interesting effect on political behavior in the UK in particular. The non-denial denial "You might say that... I couldn't possibly comment" that was one of Urquhart's favorite catchphrases has become established usage among British public figures, including then-Prime Minister John Major. It's also been acronymized for use in cyberspace as YMSTICPC.
As a number of other people have pointed out, this series strongly evokes specific Shakespearean works, notably MacBeth, and Richard III. There are however, echoes of other tragedies as well, particularly King Lear (Urquhart's soliloquy on being "a father of daughters" for one, and the use of the "sharper than a serpent's tooth" quotation) and Titus Andronicus (F.U.'s ease with violence, and the black humor throughout the series) particularly in Part 3 (The Final Cut). I suppose if one wanted to play the "match the series with the play" game, Part 1 would be analogous to the first half of MacBeth, Part 2 to Richard (up to the Battle of Bosworth), and Part 3 would be Lear with Act V of Richard thrown in for good measure.
Thus the supposed "weaknesses" in F.U.'s behavior in Part 3: his tendency to surround himself with weaklings, his descent into open violence, and his inability to "smell the mood" of his colleagues can in fact be better understood as classic Shakespearean indicators of the ruler who has finally lost his edge through age, hubris or paranoia (or some combination of all 3).
Much has been made of Mrs. Urquhart's similarity to Lady MacBeth, but she's really more like the homicidal Goneril in "Lear": None of Lady M's weak-kneed descent into madness for her. In fact, the Tragedy of Francis Urquhart (apart from the mayhem he inflicts -indirectly depicted by the director for the most part, on the well-being of ordinary British people) might well be most clearly expressed in the treacherousness or self-servingness of those who surround him at the end.
Some people believe that this series does not translate well for American audiences, my sense is that this is far from the case. Certainly some of the more subtle satire and the British cultural references might be lost, (such as the reference to the children's hand-puppet character Sooty - think Lamb Chop or Elmo as a stuffed bear) and it certainly helps to have a passing familiarity with British Parliamentary procedure (in particular the wonderful institution of "Prime Minister's Question Time").
Nevertheless these are minor details in the overall scheme of things. British politics has no monopoly on stupidity, manipulation or naked ambition. Viewers in other countries will have no trouble recognizing their own domestic versions of F.U., some perhaps in their own workplaces. Can we recognize this same behavior (admittedly with much less wit and sophistication) in some people in the current US administration? You might think that, you might very well think that, ... I couldn't possibly comment.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
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What if Shakespeare's Lord and Lady Macbeth had been temporally transported into twenty-first century Britain? They would certainly be reincarnated into the insidious Francis Urquhart and his formidable spouse Elizabeth. In their new personae, 'MacUrquhart' would still be haunted by guilty visions but would shed any qualms about committing murder in the interests of power, and 'Lady MacUrquhart' would waste no more time sleepwalking but sustain her role as the actual but invisible control over the man with titular authority.
The "House of Cards Trilogy," which includes "To Play the King" and "Final Cut," not only portrays such a ghastly scenario, but also demonstrates the disastrous consequences for a post-modern Britain when such a pair first insinuates itself into a position of power and then seizes and maintains an unrelenting grip on that power, even if, in the final analysis, it has to provoke a bloody war to do so. Thanks to Andrew Davies' darkly comedic script, Ian Richardson's brilliant portrayal of Francis, and a splendid supporting cast, the viewer is locked in suspense and held in a state somewhere between laughing and cringing at the political shenanigans, too many of which resound with an uncomfortable ring of contemporary probability.
The humor derives from Richardson as Francis, who ruptures the invisible barrier between illusion and reality by taking the audience into his confidence. In "House of Cards" he does this with such wry wit that viewers are drawn easily into his thrall, so much so that despite their better natures and common sense, they find themselves liking and identifying with this charming unapologetic scoundrel. Somewhere in the middle of "To Play the King," however, they realize, to their increasing horror, that by sharing in his most intimate thoughts, they have actually become co-conspirators in the machinations of Urquhart, who in a literal blink of the eye transforms congeniality into the mesmerizing malevolence of a king cobra. By the time they have become absorbed in the plot of "Final Cut," they are inextricably tied to Urquhart's fate, as on a runaway train. Thus the scenario becomes metaphorical for the public's unfortunate propensity to be seduced by plausible but unscrupulous politicians who draw them into situations that they might not realize are unsupportable until it is too late. The repeated use in "To Play the King" of Urquhart's initials, F.U., illustrates this proposition.
The late Ian Richardson's ability to keep the audience enthralled in the destiny of this despicable rogue testifies to his incomparable subtlety as an actor, who will be sorely missed. The lynchpin of the tale, Richardson is amply supported by an ensemble cast, including Diane Fletcher as his horrific wife; Colin Jeavens as Tim Stamper, his `whip' who wields 'a bit of stick'; Nicholas Grace as Stamper's toadying successor, Geoffrey Booza-Pitt; and Nick Brimble as the sinister Corder. Among Urquhart's memorable victims are Michael Kitchen as the well-meaning king, Susanna Harker as the unstable Mattie Storrin, Kitty Aldrich as the altruistic Sarah, to name only a few. All characters in this cautionary tale are vulnerable to the enticements of power, even those who begin as honest idealists. When Corder informs the nobly motivated Tom Makepeace, who eventually succeeds Urquhart as leader of the party, that "we"--meaning Corder, Elizabeth, and the rest--are "right behind" him, one understands the story's message that all politicians, even those with the best of motives, are liable to being corrupted absolutely by the acquisition of absolute power.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
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House of Cards, a BBC production done at the time of Margaret Thatcher's downfall, is one of the best modern political intrigue/satires done. The cast, the story, and the exacting attention to detail make this a piece worth watching and re-watching, to see what details escaped notice the first time.
As the story opens, Thatcher has just resigned. There is a brief glimpse of an inner-party election for a new leader, and the moderate, middle candidate Henry Collingridge wins the post, and proceeds to barely win the next General Election. Almost immediately following this event, tempers begin to flare as Urqhart is denied the promotion he had sought, and is disgusted with Collingridge's 'politics as usual' stance.
Francis Urqhart, Conservative Party whip and functionary, with the unwitting assistance of a junior political reporter Mattie Storin, and the manipulated support of party functionary Roger O'Neill, sets out to undo the Prime Minister, involving the PM in scandals that rock his fragile majority and ever-loosening grip on power. Ultimately, Urqhart's schemes against Collingridge bring the PM down, and the stage is set for another leadership election.
Urqhart, at the urging of his wife Elizabeth, works toward the leadership and works toward solidifying the loyalties of his minions, who include the ruffian Tim Stamper, an associate whip in the Commons, and Benjamin Landless, a newspaper proprietor. However, it is in making Storin his bedroom partner and virtual worshipper that Urqhart has his strongest support; this support is not absolute, something he recognises. This relationship is done with the blessing, nay, with the urging, of his wife Elizabeth.
Urqhart uses his inside knowledge to make short work of all but the top contenders for the job, and then casts his lot for the job at the last moment, splitting the ticket. Knocking one contender against another one final time, Urqhart carries the election. However, O'Neill is unstable and unsure of the propriety of his dealings in bringing down Collingridge, and Storin realises at the last moment that she has been a pawn in a master political chess game. O'Neill's cocaine problem leads to his demise, as Urqhart plants poison in his drugs and permits O'Neill's nature to do him in. Storin discovers this murder plot, and confronts Urqhart, who confesses, but then proceeds to throw Mattie Storin bodily from the roof of the House of Commons.
But, there was a tape recorder running, setting the stage for the sequel...
`To Play the King' is the sequel, in which Urqhart matches forces against the newly installed King, played by Michael Kitchen. The King sees himself as the champion of the underdog and underclass Urqhart has abandoned, and it is a literal battle royale to the end. Storin has been replaced by Sarah Harding, who finds Urqhart is more than a match for her minor turncoating as well.
Finally, `The Final Cut' brings things full circle, as Urqhart beats Thatcher's record of unbroken days in office. However, his lust for power drives him into reckless foreign affairs, and his wife comes into her own with scheming beyond measure.
Ian Richardson is masterful as Urqhart, the scheming blackheart Chief Whip/Prime Minister. His voice, his subtle inflections and tones are perfect for the subtext in the words he speaks. His sidewise glances and knowing expressions to camera as the action plays out is worth far more than any words. He is a perfect snobbish, upper-class politico who considers political office as patrician right, and despises pretenders to the role.
Diane Fletcher is superb as Elizabeth Urqhart, the equally manipulative wife. She is under utilised in this part of the trilogy, coming into her own as a character and an actress in later parts of the trilogy. One gets the strong sense of muted ambition and greed, but not amorality or power for power's sake from her, a distinction hard to play out on video. Fletcher succeeds beautifully.
Susannah Harker plays Mattie Storin, the troubled, intelligent and inexperienced journalist who falls for Urqhart. Her psychological instability and intelligence are played beautifully. Harker can make quite a statement just with the movements of her eyes, making her a good counterpoint to Richardson.
Miles Anderson plays the drug addict/party operative Roger O'Neill, doing a good job at playing the cad, the coward, and the fearful go-along with Urqhart's schemes. A rat trapped, O'Neill is at the breaking point, and Anderson plays this admirably.
Perhaps the best secondary roles were performed by Alphonsia Emmanuel, who plays O'Neill's assistant and lover Penny Guy, and James Villiers, who plays Charles Collingridge, the deposed Prime Minister's troubled brother. Their roles shine brilliantly despite the relative lack of screen time.
In the second series, Michael Kitchen as the King and Kitty Aldridge as Sarah Harding take primary roles, and Colin Jeavons as Stamper repeats his performance of the earlier episode, this time with much more panache. In the third series, Isla Blair as Claire Carlsen and Paul Freeman make a good show, if not altogether convincing as the final opponents for Urqhart.
One gets the impression that everyone in British politics is brilliant and troubled. Well, the truth would be about half that.
The Play's the Thing...
This production, in writing and execution, is full of Shakespearean nuances. There are indirect and direct references to Richard III, and Urqhart is a Machiavellian manipulator in the Duke of Gloucester's image, recast for modern dress and situation, complete with stage whispers and asides to audience. The depth of the characters, while still remaining caricatures, is fascinating. Perhaps the best-known line for a while was Urqhart's attempts to get information out to the journalist Storin without actually telling her, and being guilty (by the letter of the law) for leaks and disclosures. She would hint and speculate, at which Urqhart would reply, `You might very well think that. I of course couldn't possibly comment.'
John Major used this response in one of his own question-time exchanges, a use that was appreciated by the Members on both sides of the House.
For those who know nothing of British politics, this is actually a fascinating way to learn. For those who take an interest in British politics, this provides an intriguing fictional tale that is, in many ways, so close to reality on so many levels as to be positively unnerving.
Richardson rightly won BAFTA awards for his portrayal of Urqhart in each of the three installments, House of Cards and its sequels To Play the King and The Final Cut. These sequels were possibly only because of a BBC change to Dobbs' original manuscript, which had Urqhart rather than Storin falling from the rooftop garden of the House of Commons.
A bonus for the viewer.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2003
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
The three TV movies are full of great performances (from a great cast) and sinister intrigue. Sex, deception, murder, and all sorts of villainy littered throughout the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and even Number 10. Why not? The movies wouldn't be any fun if these films dealt out sins in small portions. As over the top as it is, it works and it's great to watch!
"House of Cards" started as a single book, which became a very different miniseries. The intro with Francis Urquhart looking at a photo of Thatcher was apparently broadcast around the time she was voted out of office... a strange and eerie coincidence. I consider the TV version better than the book, however I did see it before I read it. Urquhart's sinister and devious charm help make the viewer admire him (in a strange way)... yet he's ruthless and cunning, and you love to hate him. Wait for the end... it yanked me up from my seat.
It's a who-dun-it where you know who did it all along. The main character, Francis Urquhart, takes the audience into his confidence... you sometimes feel a little guilty knowing what's going on. If you get confused while watching Urquhart talk with various characters, just wait until they are off screen... F.U. will probably fill you in on what he *really* thinks. Take notes on who dies, how they die, and who does it... a grim game to play while watching the three miniseries.
"To Play the King" might be more of the same from the previous book and TV movie (both are worth reading and viewing)... but, you can't really get enough of Urquhart. Plus, you get a slightly stronger impression that Elizabeth Urquhart has more to do with the life and politics of her husband. She's often referred to as the Lady MacBeth of this series (and not without reason). No more are the street shots of rats and sewers found in this series (a great theme in "House of Cards"), but now we see even more private lives and intrigue than before.
This is a battle of wills: our boy F.U. against the newly crowned idealistic King of England. The King cares, he feels the pain of the country, he even seems to be sincerely motivated... but he's acting against the rules of conduct. You know who will come out on top, but to watch to see the other characters work in and out of their side of the war between Urquhart and the King. The royals, the advisors, the press, and public relations crew... they've all got a stake, and they're all pretty dirty.
"The Final Cut" seems to have a lot crammed into it. The book is better... and again it's a bit different than the TV movie. That is not to say that the TV movie isn't worth viewing. Fans of Indiana Jones might recognize Tom Makepiece... the actor who portrays him (Paul Freeman) also played Belloc in "Raiders"... he also played Prof. Moriarty in "Without a Clue".
Urquhart is getting old. His time is coming, but what about life after Number 10 for Francis and Elizabeth? For that matter, what about life after Number 10 at Number 10? Who can replace Urquhart? Francis might have enough cunning and will to beat the record of Margaret Thatcher's rule, but his past might catch up with him.
Is it hard for Americans to follow British politics? Not really... it is very enjoyable, dark, and even funny.
Some viewers might think this is a wicked commentary on conservative politics... you might think that. I'm sure plenty of folks would even say that. The author of the books (Michael Dobbs) worked for Thatcher. Maybe he's throwing stones at the Tories, or even any conservative politician. Yet, neither side of the political isle is safe. He's just spinning a great political yarn.
Not everyone in politics has the makings of F.U., but it's fun to think so.
Sir Ian Richardson's performance is truly fantastic... he's a genius. Susannah Harker is no slouch either. Diane Fletcher may not be seen or heard that often, but her character is as good as omnipresent.
Look up the cast on IMDB... they are so many good performances I can't name them all. You've probably seen them on various British TV series and films. After all, there's a running joke among my friends that says there's only about 35 actors working for the BBC, so they all end up in the same shows. ;)
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2005
Format: DVDVerified Purchase
When the British get it right, they're the best. And who better to introduce us to the intrigues of the world's greatest Parliment and British politics? The ambitions and power of a passed over chief whip whose wherewithall to inspire mischief, is unmatched, provides the backdrop for this witty often hilarious and always edgy tale of the man who would be prime minister. It's possible that I was just disappointed that it was coming to an end, but I found the last of the four hour-long sections, Final Cut, a bit lacking. Still. I've watched it three times in a year and given it for presents twice. I highly recomend House of Cards.