House of Cards was glorious viewing, because of the innovative (for the time) narration-to-camera; the vicarious thrill of watching Urquhart scheme and destroy his rivals to power; the naive, sexy and just-perverted-enough-to-be-icky earnestness of Susannah Harker's Mattie Storin; and - above all - because of Ian Richardson's tour de force performance - unctious, odious, edgy and playful. Was there ever in screen history a better executed smirk to the audience than Richardson's?
The sequel, To Play The King, was equally compelling viewing. The conflict - between hard-right PM Urquhart and the un-named (but unsurprisingly familiar) newly-crowned King with an interest in town planning and a social conscience - was immediately established and strongly drawn for the entire four hours.
Spoilers galore follow.
In many ways The Final Cut is the victim of its own success. After all, once you've given the big FU to the, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories, King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, then any other protagonist is small fry.
I thought at first - given the prominence of Diane Fletcher's billing in this third installment - that Urquhart's Lady Macbeth wife would be the antagonist this time around. She would have been a worthy one too; the point was quietly made in the prequels that Elizabeth Urquhart was - while not necessarily the power - then certainly the motivator and co-conspirator behind her husband's ambition and strategy. She, more than anyone, knows his weaknesses and secrets and has his complete trust. But, no, she remains loyal to the bitter end. In some ways more loyal to Urquhart and what he represents than Urquhart himself. For while Urquhart's enemies in The Final Cut are ostensibly his rivals and colleagues within his government, the true enemy is Urquhart himself. His ego, his ambition to surpass Margaret Thatcher in all things, and his past all conspire against him.
Unfortunately the effect of this is to weaken his character in at least two critical ways.
Firstly, it is revealed via flashback early in TFC that Urquhart in his youth murdered two men in Cyprus on a military mission. I couldn't help thinking this was done so that they could have something else haunt him in this episode. His guilt, and the impending discovery thereof, over Mattie Storin's death was a major thread in To Play The King, but one substantially exhausted in that installment. This time around it just doesn't have the same impact, because here Urquhart only killed two spear carriers rather than a major character he was (never stated but quite obviously in retrospect) quite in love with. We've seen this device before, and it was done better.
Secondly, his ego causes him to do make some very stupid decisions in key scenes. Yes, there is an attempt to explain away this foolishness - his age, his complacency, his obsession with victory over all enemies, real and self-imposed - but Urquhart never acted half as stupid in the previous two films as he did throughout TFC. It's no fun seeing a villain brought down when he's not at his best.
Further signs that the writers were getting stale was in the treatment of Urquhart's signature response - "You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment." A phrase so delightfully transparent it has gone down in the vernacular of real world politics. And obviously in the House of Cards world of politics as well. At one point Urquhart's Tory rival (who is foolishly forced out by Urquhart and ends up crossing the benches in disgust) uses the phrase against him on national television. "Bastard!" Urquhart exclaims. A very funny moment, no doubt, but perhaps just a tad too self-referential, if not as icky as James Cromwell telling the Enterprise crew that they are "on some sort of star trek" in the movie First Contact.
Or the character-defining asides. In House of Cards Urquhart mentions that his wife likes to listen Wagner in the afternoons. Subtle enough to be clever while still being pointed. In TFC Urquhart is given a copy of The Prince as a gift. "This is my husband's favourite book" his wife says. Rather too obvious to be either insightful or funny alas.
Or maybe I'm just bemoaning the fact that Urquhart doesn't get to shag an attractive young blonde this time around. Perhaps this is one aspect that the film makers should have recycled. Urquhart's serpentine magnetism, his capability to seduce strong willed women half his age (or less), was always part of his appeal I think. And while we saw the old coot be stupid several times in TFC, but we never saw him be sexy even once.
Given all this, it was very wise that Urquhart meets his demise, not only political but actual, in the last episode. (He has the last laugh though, just beating Margaret Thatcher's reign by a single day.) Originally novelist Michael Dobbs killed off Urquhart at the end of House of Cards. Andrew Davies let him survive for his screenplay (sending poor Mattie off the roof instead), thereby opening the way for the sequels. TFC completed Urquhart's story nicely, if not entirely satisfactorily. If only they hadn't recycled the meme of Urquhart murdering someone in his past, if only they hadn't made him be stupid to advance key plot threads, if only they had brought him down when at his best instead of at his worst, if only they'd let him shag a sexy young thang...
TFC is the Return of the Jedi of the House of Cards trilogy. In its own way, just a little too cute for its own good. I pray to God that nobody ever has the idea of doing an FU prequel trilogy.
This review has concentrated very much on the downsides of The Final Cut. Don't let this detract you from the judgement that overall it's a fine piece of work. Not quite in the league of its predecessors, but a commendable conclusion nonetheless to one of the greatest political stories ever brought to screen.