Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Different ways of playing 'Cards'
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the three segment British miniseries House of Cards from the 1990s starring Ian Richardson and this year's 13-episode U.S. version made for Netflix, produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey. If you plan to watch either version and haven't yet, read no further.
By Edward Copeland
After giving people time to watch the American version of House of Cards and with its availability on DVD and Blu-ray for those without access to Netflix Instant, I thought enough time had transpired to discuss both the new version as well as the original BBC miniseries, whose first part premiered in 1990. Prior to watching the David Fincher-produced D.C.-set House of Cards with Kevin Spacey playing the wily lead, I felt I needed to see the British version to see how well the differences translated. (Obviously, Britain's parliamentary system of government works quite differently from our legislative branch — which, in its current state, doesn't work at all, but House of Cards exists in the land of make-believe. I lacked either the time or the energy given personal matters to attempt to read the novel by Michael Dobbs that spawned the BBC miniseries.)
Though the new version pads out its story to 13 roughly one-hour episodes while the first of the three British House of Cards miniseries told mostly the same story in four episodes of approximately the same length, the U.S. take does hit many of the same plot points except when it comes to the ending, but the makers of the U.S. House of Cards envision it as a continuing series. (I needn't have watched the second and third BBC miniseries, To Play the King and The Final Cut, since the stories in those sequels aren't covered in the first season of the U.S. House of Cards.) Both versions of the political chicanery, whether set here or across the pond, offer solid entertainment and mostly solid performances, though the U.S. House of Cards wins out in terms of production values. Unfortunately, when it comes to the battle of FUs (Francis Urquhart in the U.K., Francis Underwood in the U.S.), the late Ian Richardson wins hands down. Spacey proves capable as usual for the most part, but he burdens himself with an off-and-on Southern drawl that's wholly unnecessary and, at times, a major distraction. When Richardson's Urquhart speaks to the viewer in his well-mannered, upper-crust tone, it always works. When Spacey's Underwood attempts to pull it off while simultaneously putting on a generic son of the South voice for his South Carolina representative, at times it comes off as too cutesy by half.
Despite the differences in forms of government, both House of Cards begin with essentially the same kernel of a motivation for our two Francises. In the 1990 BBC version, Urquhart has served faithfully as an MP of the Conservative Party, functioning as their Chief Whip under Margaret Thatcher's reign as prime minister. In its fictionalized view of history, Thatcher's loss of support has led to her resignation and while the Conservatives look bound to keep a weakened majority hold of the British government, Urquhart expects the new prime minister, Hal Collinridge (David Lyon, whose death at 72 was announced today), to appoint him to a long-sought Cabinet position and remove him from his duties as whip. Instead, with the slimmer majority, Collinridge decides not to shake up the Cabinet and an angry Urquhart starts maneuvering many people to get his revenge and build his own rise to power. In the 2013 U.S. take on the tale, Underwood long has held the title of Democratic Whip in the House, now the Majority Whip as a new Democratic president (not Barack Obama), Garrett Walker (Michael Gill), takes office. but Walker reneges on a promise to pick Underwood as his secretary of state. This begins Underwood's convoluted maneuvering. One problem that separates the two versions comes down to logic. You see why Urquhart longs to become the prime minister himself, but if you know U.S. history, it seems downright silly for Underwood to leap through all the hoops and commit all the deeds he does just to end up as vice president. When George H.W. Bush won the presidency, he was the first sitting vice president to manage the victory in his own right since Martin Van Buren. Unless Underwood plans to kill off Walker in a subsequent season of the U.S. House of Cards, why does he see that as a plausible path to the Oval Office?
What delineates our two Francises (the U.S. version only uses the FU joke once as its expected, vulgar stand-in by some of Underwood's opponents while the BBC call Urquhart FU frequently and affectionately by both friends and foes to his face without a hit of a double meaning) most distinctly comes from the difference in the way Spacey acts the words by Beau Willmon and his writing staff and Richardson's delivery of Andrew Davies' dialogue. Almost everyone appears to be on to what Frank Underwood conspires to do at all times, even if his machinations win in the end since Spacey doesn't take much of an effort to hide his moves from those he attempts to manipulate. In contrast, it takes some time for people to catch on to the lengths that Francis Urquhart will go to to accomplish his means thanks to Richardson's performance, which he keeps close to his vest. Both versions rely on the conceit that the Francises speak in asides to the television viewer about what they think and plan, only Spacey talks to audiences in the same basic tone as most of the other characters. Richardson confides to us, letting us in on secrets that others aren't aware of and it makes his performance much richer and, given the late actor's training, provides Francis Urquhart with an almost Shakespearean air. Urquhart picks off opponents with a variety of means and accomplishes most of this without leaving any fingerprints. The game plan in the U.S. House of Cards differs slightly as no list of vice presidential contenders stand in Underwood's way, but they do match in terms of subject matter. Urquhart must sink health and education ministers while those two issues become legislative hurdles that play a part in Underwood's climb.
Both House of Cards include two main women in the lives of their protagonists: their wives and young reporters who become the pols' lovers as well as their tool to help advance their plots. The idea of the female journalist follows fairly closely in both versions (except where they end up in the first installment and the level of their naïveté). In the BBC, the young reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) takes a long time (too long for her sake) to catch on to Urquhart's true nature and their illicit romance takes on a somewhat twisted father figure complex where the young Mattie tends to call the much older Francis "Daddy" during their dalliances. In the U.S. version, the young woman journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) contains a much more ambitious nature and she uses Underwood as much as he uses her. Both Mattie and Zoe do make colleagues jealous with their scoops and end up booted from their newspapers, only the U.S. version updates for technological changes and makes Zoe's success come via instant blog posts and finds her gaining new employment with an online political publication. Probably due to the way Mattie is written, Harker comes off as a weaker actress than Mara, who has a more fully developed character. The bigger difference presents itself in the portrayal of the political wives. Elizabeth Urquhart (Diane Fletcher) truly serves as her husband's partner-in-crime. She knows of his affair with Mattie (and other women in the later installments) but approves wholeheartedly because she knows that letting him have his extracurricular activity with Mattie only serves the couple's ultimate goal and doesn't pose a threat to her position. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) begins that way early in the U.S. House of Cards, but as the series develops she exhibits jealousy. showing up at Zoe's apartment, interfering with part of Underwood's legislative agenda and even leaving D.C. to renew an affair with a former lover, a famous photographer (Ben Daniels). Presumably, the part required beefing up in order to get someone of Wright's caliber to agree to accept it in the first place. Claire also gets her own sideline with story strands involving the charitable foundation that she runs whereas Elizabeth Urquhart basically serves as Francis' adornment at party and sounding board at home but little else.
Both versions equip our FUs with henchmen named Stamper to help him carry out the more unseemly parts of his schemes, though the portrayals as well as the job titles come off quite differently in each country. In England, Urquhart's underling, Tim Stamper, comes across as quite a weasel in the hands of actor Colin Jeavons. Tim Stamper functions as the Assistant Whip for the Conservatives in the House of Commons until Urquhart succeeds at ascending to the position of prime minister and Stamper moves up to Chief Whip. Later, unhappily, Urquhart moves him to the post party chairman. The British Stamper not only gets his hands dirty with delight, he also overflows with ambition himself and it costs him in the end (part of which may have been necessitated by Jeavons' decision to retire from acting after completing the second installment, To Play the King). The American Stamper gets a new first name — Doug — and does show signs of conscience even while he performs Underwood's errands. Doug Stamper serves as the House Majority Whip's chief of staff and holds no elected position. Michael Kelly, who most people will recognize him from many roles on television and in film, doesn't get down and dirty with the same glee that Jeavons does, but Kelly creates a different persona and plays him well. Odds are, depending how many seasons House of Cards continues, Doug Stamper either will turn on his boss or become a liability to him.
The one area besides production design where the U.S. House of Cards bests the British original comes from the actor who portrays Underwood's actual victim and how the U.S. version fleshes out his character in the first place. Before I began this piece, I issued a spoiler warning, but the U.S. House of Cards doesn't make it a secret that Underwood's deviousness takes a lethal turn, thanks to some of its promotional posters, and the very first sequence of the series gives viewers that impression by showing Underwood putting an injured dog out of its misery with his bare hands but making it clear that he isn't doing it to be merciful. In the British take, even though the first installment only consists of four 1-hour installments, it doesn't let the audience know that Urquhart's manipulations include murder. In the BBC version, the first life that Urquhart literally takes with his own hand belongs to Roger O'Neill (Miles Anderson), the P.R. consultant for the Conservative Party whom Urquhart gets to use his girlfriend, Penny Guy (Alphonsia Emmanuel), to seduce Foreign Secretary Patrick Woolton (Malcolm Tierney), one of Urquhart's competitors for the prime minister post. Unfortunately, O'Neill loves Penny as much as he loves cocaine and when she dumps him when she realizes O'Neill used her, O'Neill becomes a wild card that Urquhart can't trust. To make sure nothing comes out that damages FU's plan and reveals his role in the Woolton revelation, Urquhart spikes O'Neill's coke supply with rat poison, assuring Mattie who figures out he did it that he was just putting O'Neill out of his misery.
Overall, the American ensemble beats the British one. Granted, the U.S. version provides nine extra hours to fill with juicy parts for actors to the BBC's mere four, so the original lacks the room to develop many characters in depth so it's easy to see how Ian Richardson steals the show. Kevin Spacey, in addition to his aforementioned accent problem, shares time with a lot of great performers in parts large and small. On top of those mentioned already, Sebastian Arcelus, Reg E. Cathey, Kathleen Chalfant, Nathan Darrow, Sandrine Holt, Boris McGiver, Larry Pine, Al Sapienza, Constance Zimmer and Gerald McRaney all put in appearances. We also get three actors familiar to Treme fans in parts of various scope: Mahershala Ali, Lance E. Nichols and Dan Ziskie. The M.V.P. of the entire cast though turns out to be Corey Stoll, so great as Hemingway in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, as the U.S. equivalent of Roger O'Neill. Instead of a P.R. guy, Stoll plays Pennsylvania Rep. Peter Russo, a divorced father of two with a penchant for drugs, booze and sex, despite his deep feelings for and relationship with his chief of staff Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly). For those who only know Stoll from Midnight in Paris, he'll be unrecognizable. In the short number of episodes though, he takes Russo through the largest journey of any character in the series, battling to sobriety and attempting to believe in himself, unaware of his status as a pawn in Underwood's game (both Underwoods, actually), until it's too late. Stoll makes Russo the only character that the audience develops any sympathy for at all. Though Russo behaves badly, his mistakes all flow from his personal weaknesses. He doesn't do things maliciously the way that Underwood and other characters do. When he commits wrongs, it's because he can't control himself. Underwood always stays in control, even if unexpected events force him to improvise. You feel bad for Russo when he can't stand up for himself and acts against his own interests and those of his constituents, just to be Underwood's toady and pay him back for covering up an incident when he got caught drunk with a prostitute. You get a sense of where this comes from a in a couple of brief scenes involving Russo and his hospitalized mother (a great Phyllis Somerville) that gives you insight into Russo and makes you feel sorry for the man at the same time it provides some wickedly dark humor. When he begins to turn himself around, you develop a rooting interest for him to succeed (even though having seen the U.K. version first, I figured what fate awaited Russo, though the U.S. changes the manner of his inevitable death at Underwood's hands slightly differently). Though the U.S. House of Cards contains a lot of great acting, no one comes close to turning in a performance as wonderful as Stoll's and no character gets as much development and detail as Rep. Peter Russo.
Since the British House of Cards only ran four hours, it had a sole director, Paul Seed, and writer, Andrew Davies. Davies and Seed returned to the same roles on the second installment, To Play the King, but Seed's directing work consists almost entirely of British television. Davies wrote the third and final part, The Final Cut, but Mike Vardy took over helming duties. Similarly, his directing work stayed restricted to British TV. Davies' writing extends to film including the screenplays for Circle of Friends, Emma, The Tailor of Panama, Bridget Jones's Diary, the 2008 feature of Brideshead Revisited and the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.
While Beau Willmon had a hand in writing most of the U.S. episodes, he also had a staff of writers who either contributed or turned in their own episodes. On the directing side, Fincher started the series off by directing the first two episodes while James Foley directed the most at 4 episodes and Allen Coulter, Carl Franklin, Charles McDougall and Joel Schumacher helmed two each.
In the final assessment, the U.S. House of Cards moves fairly well except at times when it feels as if it stuffed itself with too many character and plot strands and an episode set at Underwood's reunion at The Citadel that, while OK, feels and plays like filler. The U.K. House of Cards comes off as far more efficient, even if most of the characters aside from Richardson's Urquhart prove far less compelling. In the second and third parts, they do at least give him actual adversaries, which make things slightly more interesting, but in the end all the British House of Cards episodes always belong to the great Richardson and his rich and delicious performance. One really bizarre viewing experience for me came from the miniseries — which aired in 1990, 1995 and 1996 — incorporating Margaret Thatcher's fictional death. She died in the miniseries as I watched it before she died in real life earlier this year. Part of the subtext is that Francis Urquhart wants to break Thatcher's record for serving as prime minister longer in the post-WW2 era. One other thing that makes the British version slightly better than the American take is that the first installment ends with a great cliffhanger mystery that plays out over the course of the next two parts. The new House of Cards leaves us with reporters hot on Underwood's trail about Russo's "suicide," but it doesn't come off nearly as intriguing as the British version. I'm also curious where the U.S. version goes next. It obviously can't follow the storyline of the British To Play the King since we don't have a constitutional monarch and a newly sworn in Vice President Underwood wouldn't run into conflict with a recently crowned king. Presumably, that tension will present itself with his new boss, President Walker. It's a shame that Ian Richardson isn't with us anymore and that the third British House of Cards installment resolved the Francis Urquhart character. It might have been fun to see U.S. President Francis Underwood face off against British Prime Minister Francis Urquhart. I'd probably root for Urquhart, if only because he doesn't have that corny and awful Southern accent.