(Full Disclosure: Thanks to BBC Home Entertainment for providing a complimentary copy for review. My opinions are my own, and some minor spoilers follow)
With recent focus on Netflix's release of the American House of Cards, it seems as if there is a renewed
interest in the dynamics of power in government. Although I have not been able to check out the new version,
I was fortunate enough to watch the new 4-DVD House of Cards: UK Remastered set....and it's a fascinating
portrait of power run rampant.
Consisting of three four-episode miniseries (House of Cards, To Play the King, and The Final Cut),
the set focuses on the rise and fall of Francis Urquhart (pronounced "irk-heart"), a Chief Whip who makes his
way to Prime Minister. His rise is documented in House of Cards, which is structured like a contemporary
political thriller, and thanks to Ian Richardson's performance....well, at the end we both cheer and mourn. In To Play the King, we see Urquhart take on the newly crowned monarch, and is a fascinating exploration of how a "constitutional monarchy" works. (We also see one of Urquhart's fatal flaws - he tends to place his trust indiscriminately, forcing him to drastic action). Finally, The Final Cut focuses on Urquhart struggling to maintain power, hoping to escape Margaret Thatcher's shadow while attempting to move on.
Although made in the 1990s, none of the House of Cards series seem dated - in fact, watched in contemporary times, they are a great exploration of alternative history. There's also an eerie prescience about them, especially with The Final Cut (although admittedly, some of the plot threads in that particular story are a little too convenient). Despite their British origins, there is something gleefully American in tone with all of the House of Cards series: all of them are hard-hitting, and quite honestly, show a bare-knuckled quality to the conflicts that....well, you're not going to find on Downton Abbey
It also helps that Ian Richardson's performance as Urquhart is top-notch: the way he addresses the camera (and audience) directly, shifting between reflectful monologue and co-conspirator. His onscreen relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), whose dynamics reflect Lord and Lady Macbeth in a distinctly 20th century context. The variety of....well, they're not quite friends and allies. In fact, one of the themes of House of Cards is not just about the dynamics of power (and thankfully, Machiavelli is not cited until the last possible moments), but seems to suggest that British politics is less about discourse and more about asserting one's will. And in that, there are some key lessons for American politics.
Bonus features include commentary on the first episodes of all three miniseries, plus a discussion about a brief moment of controversy and a full-length documentary on Parliament. But it's the twelve hours of Urquhart - demonstrating how power can be used, abused, and eventually lost - that will keep you watching. Never mind that these episodes are almost twenty years old - they feel like they were made yesterday.
Watch these. Now.