Ian Richardson starred as Francis Urquhart, an unscrupulous British politician on the rise in the BBC’s 1990 drama House of Cards.
Forget zombies, vampires, and ghosts captured on hidden camera: Nothing is more bloodcurdling than a politician. In times of polarization and paranoia, of lost faith in public institutions and the people who manage them — all times, basically — the atmosphere of a monster movie is an underutilized method of epitomizing the sense of dread people feel when they turn on their evening news. And in the history of the genre, no work has better captured that anxious villainy than the BBC drama House of Cards.
The American adaptation of House of Cards, directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, debuts Friday on Netflix, and it looks delightful. But for a sheer gleeful tale of political villainy, it is difficult to imagine that this series, or any series, could lay hands on the brilliance of the original. The series unfolded in three installments from 1990 to 1995, following politician Francis Urquhart’s rise from backroom enforcer to iron-fisted United Kingdom power player. Urquhart’s climb up the ladder is paved, of course, with blackmail, sexual intrigue, and the occasional murder.
The screen had seen evil politicians before, but none who had come across quite so much as a supernatural being come to prey on a weak and unsuspecting public. Urquhart is played by Ian Richardson, an elderly Shakespearean actor whose deep baritone seemed to roar from of the mists of British history. As is the case with all great screen monsters, no viewer can help but root for Urquhart. He’s vicious and immoral, but he’s the only character in the series who’s honest with himself — who admits that spin and self-justification are covers for the strong inflicting their will on the weak. And the forceful, scheming brilliance with which Urquhart imposes his own will is a vicarious thrill.
Great horror films always speak to larger social issues. “Show me a monster, I’ll show you a metaphor,” the great horror director Joe Dante is quoted as saying. And Richardson’s character, for all his cravenness, is an embodiment of ideological zealotry. Painted as a conservative somewhere 10,000 miles to the right of Margaret Thatcher, Urquhart believes that he alone can save the disappearing traditions of the England he loves. If he does truly love his country, isn’t he obliged — for the country’s sake — to ensure that no one less than himself be allowed to guide it? England certainly can’t be left to his gnatlike rivals, flawed and weak, barely distinguishable despite their high positions from the common run of humanity.
It is here that House of Cards digs down to the Shakespearean roots of the horror genre. (Think about it: A singularly driven, almost superhuman protagonist whose glorious and gory rise is as inevitable as his gory fall.) This was a conscious strategy by the producers, who not only cast one of the Bard’s finest actors in the lead role but let him frequently address the audience directly, soliloquy-style. Just as the hidden weaknesses of Urquhart’s adversaries ultimately bring them all to ruin, so too in the course of the series are Urquhart’s strengths allowed to run so far unchecked that they finally become weaknesses. In fact, Urquhart’s monomaniacal determination that he and he alone is fit to guide the nation leads him into direct conflict with the symbol of that nation, the monarch himself (in this case, a thinly veiled version of a sanctimonious Prince Charles).
Given the team behind the American House of Cards, it is sure to be fascinating. But it will be a tough task to match the depth the original attains simply though its Britishness, that country’s inherent gravitas, the ancient catacombs of Westminster the perfect setting for a portrait of politics as a gargoyle come to life and unleashed on a helpless public.