FALLEN HOUSE

First watch A new show fo­cus­ing on a ruth­less politi­cian is a stylish US re­work­ing of an ac­claimed Bri­tish minis­eries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

‘ THE world of 7.30 on Tues­day nights, that’s dead; a stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off and its mouth has been stuffed with gar­lic,’’ said di­rec­tor David Fincher ear­lier this year, speak­ing of the way we have tra­di­tion­ally watched TV. ‘‘ The cap­tive au­di­ence is gone. If you give peo­ple this op­por­tu­nity to main­line all in one day, there’s rea­son to be­lieve they will do it.’’

The di­rec­tor of movies such as The Girl with the Dragon Tat­too and The So­cial Net­work was re­fer­ring to his new pro­duc­tion, House of Cards, fi­nanced and re­leased by Net­flix, the US stream­ing and DVD-by-mail dis­tri­bu­tion site. Net­flix pre­miered its first orig­i­nal se­ries, the in­ter­na­tional co-pro­duc­tion Li­ly­ham­mer, now air­ing on SBS, last year but House of Cards marks the com­pany’s de­but as a cre­ator of scripted pro­gram­ming. It’s a se­ri­ously high­brow show too, screen­ing here on Fox­tel’s pre­mium drama chan­nel Show­case, full of am­ple de­lights and as stylish as TV gets.

This ex­pen­sive, cin­e­mat­i­cally lav­ish TV drama, is an Amer­i­can re­work­ing of the 1990 Bri­tish minis­eries of the same name about power plays and das­tardly, some­times mur­der­ous, po­lit­i­cal shenani­gans in Bri­tain’s par­lia­ment.

But ac­cord­ing to its writer, Os­carnom­i­nated Beau Wil­limon ( The Ides of March) it is no mere re­make or art­less Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion or even sim­ple trans­la­tion. ‘‘ There def­i­nitely are some clear things that any­one who watched the BBC se­ries will see that we stole with­out re­morse, and cer­tain ar­che­typal fea­tures — a few of the char­ac­ters and a cou­ple of big plot themes — but it re­ally is a reinvention from the ground up.’’

The se­ries is pro­duced by Fincher, who also di­rected the first two episodes; it is his first foray into TV and he adds a filmic so­phis­ti­ca­tion full of dec­o­ra­tive and ex­pres­sive over­lays to Wil­limon’s acer­bically in­tel­li­gent story.

House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as Fran­cis Un­der­wood, a de­vi­ously bright House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Ma­jor­ity Whip and Robin Wright as his wife, who runs a char­ity; she’s as steely-jawed and re­lent­less as her spouse. A sweet-talk­ing wheeler-dealer de­nied the job of sec­re­tary of state, he’s ob­sessed by the Machi­avel­lian dy­nam­ics of power and will do any­thing to se­cure it, and will also cal­lously pu­n­ish any­one who gets in his path.

In the first episode, Chap­ter One, Un­der­wood, is be­trayed by the smooth-faced Pres­i­dent Gar­rett Walker (Michael Gill). Un­der­wood had helped en­sure the elec­tion of Walker, who had promised to ap­point him sec­re­tary of state. But be­fore Walker is sworn in, White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sak­ina Jaf­frey) an­nounces that the pres­i­dent will not hon­our the agree­ment and will in­stead nom­i­nate Se­na­tor Michael Kern.

Furious at Walker’s be­trayal, Un­der­wood and Claire, as cold-blooded as he, make a pact to de­stroy Walker. Di­a­bol­i­cally self-in­ter­ested, Un­der­wood is ca­pa­ble of any­thing and will­ing to do any­thing to be­come the next pres­i­dent of the US. ‘‘ For­ward; that is the bat­tle cry,’’ be­comes his mantra, his plan to un­hinge the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

‘‘ There are two kinds of pain,’’ he says in the open­ing scene, at­tend­ing an in­jured dog, the vic­tim of a night-time hit and run on the street out­side his op­u­lent home. ‘‘ The sort of pain that makes you strong; or use­less pain, the sort of pain that is only suf­fer­ing.’’ The dog is whim­per­ing, Un­der­wood talk­ing to the cam­era in an aside as well as to the an­i­mal. ‘‘ I have no pa­tience for use­less things,’’ he says, look­ing down, his shoul­ders mov­ing, his hands off screen.

‘‘ Mo­ments like this re­quire some­one who will act, who will do the un­pleas­ant thing; the nec­es­sary thing.’’ He looks up and slightly away from the cam­era. The dog stops whim­per­ing. ‘‘ There. No more pain.’’

Un­der­wood gives the im­pres­sion this is not the first time he has used his hands to stran­gle some­thing. It’s a quite hor­ri­ble mo­ment but strangely, strangely hu­mor­ous.

It’s also a star­tling open­ing to this well­re­ceived 13-part se­ries, hailed ear­lier this year as the fu­ture of tele­vi­sion when it first aired on Net­flix, all of it that is, 13 ex­pen­sive episodes one af­ter the other on its web­site, in one big binge hit for sub­scribers.

The re­lease al­lowed view­ers to watch the en­tire she­bang, (a word Un­der­wood, who hates slop­pi­ness in the use of lan­guage, would love) like a 13-hour movie, on a week­end, or spread across a month. And it was re­ported that other dis­trib­u­tors such as Ama­zon and YouTube and even the BBC were fu­ri­ously clam­ber­ing to cash in on a broad­cast­ing fu­ture that ap­pears to be on­line and a world away from old-fash­ioned TV by ap­point­ment.

The se­ries shakes out the ide­al­ism of The West Wing and re­places it with the dark and deadly cyn­i­cism of Kelsey Gram­mer’s Boss. Un­like Boss, though — the story of a po­lit­i­cal ruler with ab­so­lute power in­creas­ingly un­able to con­trol his own body and his own mind as he at­tempts to rule his king­dom — there is this comic edge to House of Cards. Spacey brings a sly crafti­ness to his in­tense brood­ing, light­en­ing the al­most Shake­spearean sto­ry­telling style. His char­ac­ter uses a Richard III kind of di­rect ad­dress which — as he presents his false fronts to all those with whom he deals — brings us into in­ti­mate con­tact with his true self. We be­come part of the work­ings of his du­plic­i­tous mind, im­pli­cated, co-con­spir­a­tors in his schemes, and his ac­com­plices.

And Spacey, as one might ex­pect of this fine ac­tor, does it deftly, with flair and games­man­ship, wickedly de­con­struct­ing mo­ments for their sub­text and, like Frank Un­der­wood, ob­vi­ously hav­ing great fun in do­ing so.

Few ac­tors can do more with a cheeky raised eye­brow than Spacey. His voice, tinged with a trea­cly south­ern ac­cent, is sonorous, some­how chan­nelling Gre­gory Peck’s At­ti­cus Finch in To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, a mix­ture of strength and ten­der­ness. But when he smiles you see the teeth of a shark. ‘‘ I can al­ways save one of us

House of Cards

Kevin Spacey in

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