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Conservative Chief Whip Francis Urquhart takes the audience under his wing as he baits and tricks his way toward a job as British Prime Minster. The perpetually without comment politician, played brilliantly by Ian Richardson, retains an amused smirk as he calmly destroys anyone blocking his ambition. House of Cards and its two sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut, are inherently British political dramas of the highest order. Each four-episode series is rife with unpredictable political pawns and back-room corruption. Richardson makes his devilish character extra sleazy while piling on the charm, and the trilogy takes on all aspects of the British government, from Parliament to the Royal Palace.
Urquhart and his Conservative Party back Hal Collingridge (David Lyon) after Margaret Thatcher resigns. A decent if weak-willed Prime Minister, Collingridge is repeatedly undermined by Urquhart, who uses the Prime Minister's alcoholic brother as a weapon and frames a number of influential party members by threatening to expose their sexual and drug habits. The feisty Whip decides to bed a young political reporter (Susannah Harker) so he can spoon-feed her concoctions about the party, which she confuses for an incredible inside scoop. The political backbiting in House of Cards intensifies as the series moves forward, and Urquhart proves willing to do just about anything to oust Collingridge and steal his job.
Richardson is certainly the star of these shows, and this Andrew Davies adaptation veers away from Michael Dobbs' source novels to keep Urquhart in power. The sidewinder plot of House of Cards kicks along as Urquhart commits one gleefully devious sin after another. No Party player, journalist, or addict relative is left untouched in his political game. The writing is excellent throughout, and the cast is stocked with memorable supporting characters, including Michael Kitchen's Prince Charles-esque King and Diane Fletcher as Urquhart's equally ruthless wife, Elizabeth. The early '90s setting is a perfect stage on which Urquhart can perform without being completely undercut by technology. These are simpler times in London, when a politician walks down to a physical bank branch to make a shady money laundering transaction.
House of Cards, which recently got a reboot via Netflix, is the best of the lot, but its two follow-ups are certainly worthwhile. This trilogy reminds me of the The Wire in that it looks at British politics from several angles as it follows Urquhart's career arc. To Play the King sees Urquhart thriving in his role as prime minister - and known by his initials, F.U. - until he has to go head to head with the King in a clash that suggests the inherent strain between the monarch and prime minister in modern England. The series again looks at how the press can be manipulated, and Chapter II apparently caused some backlash with British viewers who found it disrespectful to the Queen.
The Final Cut lands in the twilight of Urquhart's career as he surpasses Thatcher as the longest-serving Prime Minster in modern Britain. The wily leader's spark is waning, as are his feisty asides, and The Final Cut proves more depressing and less entertaining than its predecessors. Urquhart struggles to settle on a legacy, and younger Conservative Party members grow increasingly dissatisfied with his old-school tactics. Too much praise cannot be heaped on Richardson, who creates a true anti-hero in Urquhart. The House of Cards Trilogy is political drama at its most gripping, and it renders bad politics both frightening and enticing.
The BBC has remastered all twelve episodes, and presents the trilogy with 1.33:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfers that all look quite good. These episodes are never going to look like slick, modern blockbusters thanks to the straightforward production design and traditional film stock used, but the Blu-ray presentations look as good as can be expected. Detail is generally strong, particularly in close-ups, and there's a fair bit of texture and depth to most scenes. Colors are well saturated if intentionally drab, and black crush is only a problem in the darkest scenes. There's a bit of noise and banding here and there, but print damage is completely absent from the transfers.
As you might expect from a television drama, the soundtrack is largely front-loaded. These 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are certainly adequate for the material. Dialogue is clean and crisp, with good separation. There's occasional minor hiss but I suspect this is the result of on-set dialogue capture or quick re-dubbing and not a problem with the mixes. Music, effects and dialogue are appropriately balanced, and these mixes are perfectly adequate. English SDH subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
BBC's House of Cards Trilogy is a three-disc set, and each four-episode series receives its own disc. The discs are packed in a slim, hinged Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a matching slipcover. A Commentary from Andrew Davies and Ian Richardson is available on the first episode of each series, and the pair provides decent insight into the making and background of House of Cards. There's quite a bit of dead air on each track, however, which undercuts the impact. Also included is Andrew Davies on "To Play the King" Controversy (8:45/SD), in which Davies discusses the backlash from some viewers that the second chapter insulted the British monarchy. Finally, Westminster: Behind Closed Doors (51:14/SD) is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
The BBC's House of Cards Trilogy is gripping and mischievous; an irreverent, fictional take on British politics anchored by Ian Richardson's wily Francis Urquhart, who goes from backstabbing Conservative Chief Whip to aging Prime Minster over three accomplished seasons. Urquhart's famous non-denial - "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment." - entered the collective lexicon for good reason: Richardson's performance is devilish perfection. The BBC remastered each gripping series for Blu-ray, and the episodes look and sound great. This excellent release merits our highest rating: DVD Talk Collector Series.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.