Review: Netflix’s House of Cards

They may have found his skeleton in a Leicester car park but Richard III is alive and scheming in House of Cards – not the 1990 British thriller serial but the new American version streamed to subscribers on Netflix. The original authors, Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs, are among the producers overseeing the transfer of the devious machinations of an unscrupulous chief whip from Westminster to Washington. All 13 episodes are available, to be gulped down in a dyspepsia-provoking marathon of conspiracy, betrayal and cynical amorality, or savoured at digestion-friendly intervals.

The prospect of bingeing on the whole thing looks irresistible but should be resisted. I have noticed that those of my acquaintance who indulged in the marathon lost something of their critical sharpness as a result. The words “punch-drunk” and “brainwashed” spring to mind.

I experimented by watching the drama in three slabs. The first three episodes made a neutral impact: too much politicking of a sort we’ve seen an inordinate amount of on TV – and usually done with more bite. Could it be that the Shakespearean convention of an audience-buttonholing machiavel simply doesn’t gel with the thrusting realism expected from insider political drama?

A middle section of six episodes gradually took hold, but only the final four instalments really made me want to keep watching, thanks chiefly to Corey Stoll’s portrayal of self-destruction, a real tragedy, followed by growing tension in the plotting. Impeccably cast, professional at every level. Decent but not a knock-out. If I hadn’t been obliged to watch the whole thing, I think I might have left after three episodes.

The serial follows the convoluted rise to power of a Congressman of steely unstoppability and a contortionist’s moral pliancy, and the tortuous ramifications involving his helpers and rivals. Tricks grow dirtier, strategies more unscrupulous; careers are ruined, families destroyed. A mutually helpful relationship between politics and media turns poisonous (really?), exemplified by an ambitious young woman journalist, emotionally involved and predictably hurt. Corruption and venality are common currency.

The American remake can be judged on its own terms, though, like the BBC original, it is overshadowed by a giant, manipulative presence. Both cultures take certain givens for granted – the tacit values and assumptions shaping attitudes even when not actively moving the plot. In Britain the elephant in the room is class. In Washington it is corporatism, and much more openness about money – although, as Congressional whip Francis Underwood assures us in one of his confidential asides to camera, power, not money, is what counts.

Underwood dominates the story, lying, bluffing, double-bluffing, ensnaring nature’s weaklings and dupes as he aims for the ultimate prize. His tendency to Shakespearean asides, confiding, self-congratulatory or – rarely – angry, underlines the character’s classical antecedents: Richard III, a dash of Macbeth, Edmund in Lear, Iago – “such smiling rogues” who prove that a man may smile and smile and be a villain.

Unfortunately Kevin Spacey goes easy on the smiles. He has none of Richard’s glee or Edmund’s fatalistic relish of his dark side. Having paid his classical theatre dues, Spacey can freeze into dead-eyed dislike to chilling effect, momentarily revealing a visitor from another planet. But he eschews honest Iago’s bonhomie in favour of machiavellian duplicity signalled with semaphore emphasis. Here is a clever actor playing a clever actor, oozing such insincerity that you wonder how even Washington politicos can be taken in.

He makes the most of the mocking self-deprecation with which Underwood undercuts his unsavoury secrets. “I’m not going to lie. I despise children . . . There! I’ve said it.” Or “I will march forward even if I have to do so alone . . . See? I told ya!” If sometimes recalling a malevolent pudding, Spacey can elevate a mock-Jacobethan guilty monologue to something near the real thing, as when remembering, in church, the man he has murdered: “Is that you, Peter? Stop hiding in my thoughts and come out. There is no solace above or below us, only small, solitary striving, battling one another . . . I pray to myself, for myself.” The actor’s dark nihilism evokes Iago.

British viewers may find the US political manoeuvring plodding, even though the first episodes are directed by David Fincher (The Social Network), and Joel Schumacher is also on board. The serial really ignites when it turns into a detective thriller as Underwood’s skein of evil begins to unravel – the last four episodes grip. The large cast is without weakness, notably Robin Wright as Underwood’s wife, here a much larger role than the English original, and Stoll, a revelation as a Congressman whose personal Calvary – drink, drugs, whores; redemption, temptation and fall – is both epic and intimately human. These characters have the advantage of changing in the course of the action, unlike Underwood. That’s the trouble with icons, even evil ones: they may dominate but they rarely surprise.

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