»Here is my take on last Thursday night, for what it's worth (spoiler alert, etc)
The opening scene of Fincher's 'House of Cards' sets the tone for what's to follow ~ opens on blackness, the black of night, dog barks in the distance, car screeches: all in classic Fincher/Klyce tonalities. Francis Underwood's next door neighbour's dog has been done in a hit and run, it's the middle of the night and Frank is first out of his Washington DC townhouse and immediately assesses that the dog is beyond saving. He proceeeds to kill the dog with his bare hands, whilst addressing the camera directly in the first of his many 'asides' to the viewer. He winningly explains to us the difference between 'useful' and 'useless' pain. Within seconds he's equally convincing in his consolation of his neighbour who's just arrived on the scene, and promises that he'll trace the 'killer' car in question. And I'm thinking 'this aint gonna be your daddy's West Wing!'
And so it proves, over the course of the following 110 minutes (and presumably 26 hours) as there is a delicious sense of a compulsive and elegant inevitability to Frank's unfolding Machiavellian machinations, once they have been set in motion. Everything stems from a promise denied and a sociopath scorned; playing it, as he does, with that silken Southern charm Kevin Spacey almost convinces you that all his atrocious actions are simply a fitting response to an impoliteness on the part of others. He was given a false promise of position and so now people must face the consequences of such....rudeness. Over the course of one long dope-fuelled night alone in his townhouse, FU (geddit?) seemingly plans out in his head his entire plan of attack, and the entire plot of the next 26 hours of must-see-TV.
In terms of performance, it may have been because I was front row, dead centre, in front of a huge silver screen (a spot I strenuously avoid normally, but this is just where I ended up on the night), but Spacey gives a truly monumental central performance (hence the poster artwork). I can't imagine how it'll be once reduced to a 40 inch plasma, but I would assume it will still have the capacity to mesmerise and captivate. The 'trick' of using the asides direct to camera is established right from the opening dead dog scene, and for this viewer it was seamlessly done. Spacey would be well used to this kind of stuff from his Shakespearean endeavours, and although it is used sparingly, it truly does draw you further into the action at hand, rendering you on more intimate terms with the villainous deeds.
Obviously there may have been a risk that Spacey's role and playing could dominate, but in Robin Wright you have an actor playing a character to match Frank's (her character, Claire, is the only one who refers to him as Francis) If he is the stone in this monumental couple, she is the steel. Yes, she has all the Lady Macbeth moves down to a tee, but there is heart there too. In her business dealings (she runs an enviromental charity) she is seen as quite ruthless, but gets across the need for toughness sometimes, and there is a beautifully played and written little scene in a coffee shop towards the end of episode 2 where the human cost of the treatment she has meted out to a long-time colleague is brought home to her. Wright plays the subtleties of that momentary human interaction as perfectly as she does the incendiary partner-in-crime stuff. You could simply never tire of watching her on screen.
In the opening two episodes Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes necessarily comes off as a more lightweight character - she is supposed to be this up-and-comer journalist, and less fully formed. She does look incredibly young, but fittingly so as she is supposed to represent the "TMZ, twitter twat" generation of hack. Mara does definitely get across a subtle sense of a kind of febrile bolshiness, as well as an undercurrent of the ruthlessness and tenacity that I sense is to come in future epsiodes. Her initial scenes with Spacey feel, quite fittingly, like a minnow circling a shark. They are deliciously queasy. Again, as with Spacey and Wright, Mara's character is beautifully written, with a beguiling mix of naivety, cynicism and greed. She want's the truth of the hot story, but she is also more than ready and willing for the celebrity that may come with it.
The supporting characters are a tasty feast of writing and playing too - like Doug Stamper, FU's appropriately named right hand man, his very own Al Neri, brilliantly played by Mike Kelly. He has the look of an Irish terrier who will do anything, or anyone, for his master. Corey Stoll's Peter Russo is a mess of a man, but Stoll plays it so that, through all the coke, hookers and booze, you never completely lose sight of the sliver of the decent man that lies beneath. Underwood's continual manipulation of him has you simultaneously thrilled and appalled. Another favourite of mine was Barnes' editor at the Washington Herald Tom Hammerschmidt (Beau Willimon has great fun assigning names that somehow align with peoples charactersitics ~ Underwood, Stamper, Hammerschidt, Goodwin, etc) As embodied by Boris McGiver the man is basically a brick wall with eyes. And a mouth. That's all he needs!
In terms of the visuals it is classic late-Fincher. Camera locked-down and dirty. This stabilisation process that he's developed is increasingly beguiling to me now. It shouldn't make that much of a difference, but as Angus Wall said re:'GDT', it really makes a difference when you view something that stable. You notice how jittery everything else is. It lends a certain air of authoritative resonance to the shots, and of course any deviation speaks volumes. There are the usual rock solid tilts, actors filling and moving within a frame, never the frame chasing the action. I don't know why this, and the rest, of Fincher's visual arsenal is so appealing to me; perhaps it is about an authority and a control that is reassuring. The director is in control, thus you the viewer are in control. I don't know. But I know it gets me very time, in precisely the same way the voice of my favourite singer reels me in, no matter the song.
Cinematographically, to my eyes, it was perfect Fincher ~ probably more 'Zodiac'-flavour than 'TSN' or 'GDT'. All quite pallid patinas - Congressional offices were greys, blues and creams, while the Herald offices were a forest of fluorescents. The Underwood townhouse is a tower of shadowed wood and golden walls. Kick-ass focus pulls abounded, and razor sharp shallow focus underscored key scenes. I felt that episode 2 became darker visually and thematically as Frank's plans begin to take shape, even though the episode begins in harsh Washington sunshine. As the episode progresses many of Spacey's most twisted exchanges play out in essentially silhouette. I recall some of the scenes between Frank and Zoe Barnes where Spacey would be addressing the camera as simply a midnight blue shadow. There was alot of midnight blue throughout actually. Yummy.
One of the particular visual pleasures for me was the contrast between Frank's realm, the Congressional offices, and Zoe's world of the newspaper offices. The warren of Congressional offices were often captured with a shallow depth of field, lots of rack focusing, often onto reflective surfaces (glass, marble) and mirror imaging; in other words - a visually slippery world, reflecting the nature of the people and relations within those walls. Shifting allegiances, shifting focus, double dealing, double imaging, etc. Whereas the Herald offices were a blank wash of flourescent whiteness ~ everything out in the open, seemingly clear and exposed. Light reaching evenly into every corner.
As I mentioned earlier I had ended up in the front row, dead centre, about 15 - 20 feet away from the huge curved screen of the Odeon West End. I had been concerned that this would be too close and the image would be distorted to me but the RED Epic camera had rendered evrything in such pristine resolution that even at such proximity detail was astonishing, especially on the frequent close-ups. Like I said, monumental. Although, at that distance, I can't be certain what aspect ratio 'House Of Cards' is in. The trailers looked like scope, or 2:1 at least, but from the front row it was hard to judge.
The Q&A between the cast and crew afterwards was something of a wash-out, not much more than a succesion of 'you're the best', 'No, you're the best', 'No, but really you ARE the best', etc. No audience input at all really (apart from a couple of politicians in the house) It was done in 18 minutes, and the 'talent' were wrangled off to the after-party. So my hopes of getting to shake the hand of Mr. Fincher would have to wait til next time.
Sad man that I am though, I consoled myself with the fact that I got to meet Peter Mavromates, Fincher's post-production supervisor since god-knows-how-long. I noticed him standing around in the foyer, prior to the screening, and I thought he looked kind of lonely. So I went up, shook his hand and had a chat. I introduced myself by saying I recognised him from various DVD supplements and congratulated him on his work. I asked him if tonights screening was a 4K or 2K DCP (it was 2K) and if he'd been in to set it up. He had, which was kind of cool. He said that it was a great screen, a genuine old 'silver screen' which made it look better, although the slight curvature had caused some problems. He said the sound was a touch "hot" as it was a TV mix, but nothing too bad. It would sound best on your TV. Seemed genuinely enthused about the show and said he hoped I enjoyed it. I told him to have a good night and went inside. When I realised I was so close I began to wish for a 4K projection, but the image was beyond perfect.
Despite the disappointment of the non-Q&A I'm still glad I went to the show, despite having travelled a fair old distance in freezing conditions. I got the chance to see the world premiere of Fincher's 'House Of Cards', and the one and only opportunity to see what is essentially a new feature-length Fincher work in a way that it will never be seen again ~ in a cinema, on a kick-ass silver screen. The real test of whether the show works as a show though came at the end of the screening, when, I swear, I found myself unconsciously fumbling for a remote to flick to the next episode in the box set. I will be begging, borrowing and probably stealing, to play in the 'House Of Cards' come February first!«
Thanks again, Simon!