Ian Richardson (From Hell, M. Butterfly) returns as malevolent statesman Francis Urquhart in this acclaimed finale to the Masterpiece Theater trilogy that began with House Of Cards and continued in To Play The King.
Now Prime Minister, and nearing the end of his term, Urquhart plans to let international events help him to a luxurious retirement. But he finds himself caught in someone else’s power play, and for the first time he is unable to see a way out. Will he outwit his enemies one last time, or will his long career end in disgrace and defeat?
Brilliantly adapted by Andrew Davies (Pride And Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary), from Michael Dobb’s best-selling novel, this satirical trilogy took home a primetime Emmy, a Peabody, two BAFTAs and a Broadcasting Press Guild Award.
The Final Cut 8.0
eyelights: Ian Richardson’s performance. the gall of FU.
eyesores: the poor direction of all action sequences. the so-so ending.
“To quote the prime minister, “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.””
‘The Final Cut’ is the third and last mini-series in the original British ‘House of Cards‘ trilogy. Based on the eponymous novel by Michael Dobbs, it was released in 1995, catering controversy over the implicit demise of Margaret Thatcher, who was then very much alive and well. It stirred the pot to such a degree that Dobbs eventually asked to have his name removed from the credits.
Ian Richardson returns in the lead, playing Francis Urquhart with aplomb. His performance remains as solid as ever, even if the directorial choices of Andrew Davies sometimes stripped him of his credibility – notably when Urquhart gets in a daze, takes that are so long that it makes him look mentally deficient. If the character seems less edgy, it’s because Urquhart is weaker, not Richardson.
‘The Final Cut’ finds Urquhart many years after the events of ‘To Play the King‘, now in what must be his third term (it’s not explicitly stated – but given the duration of terms, it’s at least third, if not fourth) as Prime Minister of Great Britain, and edging close to bypassing his predecessor, Thatcher, for longest-serving post-War PM. He is facing discontent within his party and without, however.
This leads Ms. Urquhart to consider their plans after he retires, which he is certainly not considering yet; she’s concerned about his limited PM’s pension. Thus she puts into motion a plan for them to benefit from an oil dig in the waters near the Greek and Turkish frontier, taking advantage of a peace process that his government is negotiating – and convinces him to follow her lead.
The Cyprus situation is loaded for other reasons, however: when he was much younger, Urquhart was involved in the assassination of a couple of Cypriot freedom fighters and he is still troubled by those events – events that are also coming back to haunt him in the form of their brother, who is trying to prove Urquhart’s involvement in their deaths so that he may get justice.
Further complicating matters is a developing conflict with his Foreign Secretary, Tom Makepeace, who is disgruntled for doing all the groundwork and having all the credit for the peace process stolen by Urquhart. Further to that, Urquhart improvises a speech in the House that scuttles years of Makepeace’s negotiations. Infuriated, he begins to consider contesting the leadership.
Meanwhile, Makepeace is having an affair with Claire, a colleague, who is so ambitious she lands a gig as Urquhart’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. This not only causes frictions between them, but finds her playing both sides in a game that is unclear to us until the very end. Is she serving the PM, her lover or herself? Urquhart is confident that he has the upper hand. But does he?
If it all sounds rather melodramatic, that’s because it is: ‘The Final Cut’ tries to make all this “inside baseball” more exciting to the average person, assuming (perhaps correctly) that backroom deals and conspiracies aren’t enough. They even spend an inordinate amount of time in bed with Makepeace and Claire, sexing the series up by showing us an abundance of frontal nudity.
Frankly, I found it astonishing to watch Urquhart and his spouse work together – the more it goes the more essential she has become, the more we see how they’re actually a power couple. It’s amazing to see how resolute she is and how she manages to cheerlead him out of his uncertainty. She’s a really strong partner. And yet… even she has her doubts, and that will play a part.
Interestingly, the fourth episode saw more action than all of the previous series combined, with growing political unrest in Cyprus leading the British army to go in and rescue their High Commissioner. Unfortunately, the action was directed extremely poorly, making it very unconvincing and sapping those moments of their intended effect. Too bad, given how much of it there was.
And then there’s the ending (which I won’t divulge here), but which felt a little bit like a letdown because Urquhart neither contrived his way out triumphantly nor did he crash and burn. I think a character of this type deserved either extreme, not some weird sidestep. To make matters worse, it felt unrealistic to some degree and I wasn’t 100% sure how this turn of events advantaged anyone.
Although the final episode of ‘The Final Cut’ was the weakest of the four (a recurring issue in the series, actually), I really enjoyed it for the most part. The first episode, in particular, had me chuckling along and fully engrossed in the Urquharts’ latest schemes and manoeuvres. I lapped up all the political goings-on and shook my head at the gall that some (most?) of these characters had.
But, ultimately, it’s the Ian Richardson/Francis Urquhart show. It’s such an amazing part and performance that I’m surprised it’s not considered iconic. Perhaps it is in some circles. If so, it’s richly deserved. While the material isn’t always up to snuff, Richardson powers through it like gangbusters, leaving us with a rather unforgettable personage – the likes of which I adore in fiction but would loathe in real life.
As for the series, it gradually loses its sharpness, and the issue is a combination of inspiration and direction. Let’s be honest: the initial pull of the series was watching Urquhart claw his way up. But what can one do once he’s made it to the top? So the series finagles all manners of conflicts and drama, and challenges to Urquhart’s authority, but it can’t recapture the original spark.
Still, as a whole, it’s an extremely entertaining series. I highly recommend it.
Dates of viewings: June 10-29, 2015