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The Final Cut (Review)

The third and final part of the House of Cards trilogy, The Final Cut exists to bring to a close the story of Francis Urquhart, the iconic and conniving fictional British Prime Minister. Portraying Urquhart during his twilight years, the series presents a man who has arguably faced and overcome all the challenges that the world has to offer. While The Final Cut lacks a clear focal point like House of Cards and To Play the King, it is a fitting conclusion to the epic saga, with a powerhouse central performance from Ian Richardson as the Machiavellian Tory Prime Minister.

Still in his Prime?

From its opening sequence, where Urquhart puts down his faithful family pet, The Final Cut is very much about death and retirement. While Urquhart tries to relive his glory days by basking in the adoration of the conniving young MP Geoffrey Booza Pitt, his wife has more practical plans involving the discovery of oil off the coast of Cyprus. Naturally, with Urquhart planning to use the Cypriot peace deal to secure his political legacy, things begin to go a little bit awry.

This is an Urquhart who has already faced and bested his greatest foes. After all, Urquhart has managed to force the abdication of the King, leaving the monarchy’s young son as a figurehead. There’s no tangible Labour opposition to Urquhart’s iron fist style of ruling. A party contributor describes his England as existing in “a new Elizabethan age.” It seems that all of Urquhart’s domestic rivals have been vanquished. His introduction of national service at the climax of To Play the King suggested that he harboured global ambitions, and The Final Cut all but confirms it.

His reputation’s on the line…

“I want to do something with Europe, before I go,” he tells his wife at one point. “I’ve left my mark on England; I want to leave my mark on the world.” Urquhart’s vanity is so great that Europe exists purely for him to meddle in it. When the notion of a single European currency is broached, Urquhart takes great pleasure in stirring the pot – countering with the proposal for a single European language. You can guess what language he suggests. When his Foreign Secretary challenges it on it, he concedes that he was joking. Mostly.

I have to admit, with the emphasis that The Final Cut places on foreign affairs, I’m surprised that there’s no mention or exploration of the United States. It’s interesting to imagine what Urquhart’s relationship with that neighbour must have been, even though The Final Cut is more preoccupied with how Urquhart sees Britain’s role within Europe. I suspect it would be interesting, if only because it would be fascinating to see Urquhart in a relationship where he’d be in a relatively subdued position, as opposed to the situation with Europe where Urquhart appears to be perhaps the most important player, his government helping resolve the old grudge between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus.

Makepeace, not war…

There are faint hints of Urquhart’s domestic policies, including a complete abandonment of social welfare (“if they pay, they’re okay,” we’re told of pensioners with Old Age Insurance) and the decision to deal with homelessness by making vagrancy illegal. He has successfully dismantled any opposition to his rule, and turned the Houses of Parliament into idle talking shops. When asked for unemployment figures, he makes them up off the top of his head, with no consequences for the lie. “Mustn’t fitter all my time away at Westminster,” he muses at one point. “None of the real business of the world gets settled there.”

Indeed, the only plausible threat to Urquhart’s rule seems to come from within his own party, the only threat that could – potentially – foil his ambition to serve longer than Margaret Thatcher. Incidentally, the serial incorrectly identifies Thatcher as Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister, when she was actually the longest-serving post-war Prime Minister. Still, it makes for a nice parallel as Urquhart feels his reign coming under increasing pressure, not too different from that which toppled Thatcher’s regime. “I want to be remembered as the greatest Prime Minister since Winston Churchill,” Urquhart tells his wife, as if setting himself up for inevitable failure.

How it Urqs me that Ian Richardson isn’t more highly regarded…

To be fair, The Final Cut suffers a bit from the lack of a substantial antagonist for Urquhart. House of Cards worked so well because it was Urquhart successfully playing the system as a political underdog, while To Play the King played him against a more socially-conscious monarch. The most significant opponent that The Final Cut can throw against Urquhart is the disappointingly bland Thomas Makepeace, his Foreign Secretary and potential threat to his leadership. Makepeace isn’t a strong enough character to stand against Urquhart, and the story feel like it lacks a single focal point for Urquhart to respond to.

Instead, it seems like a variety of subplots unfolding simultaneously, with no real purpose until we enter the final hour of the show. Of course, Richardson is a strong enough actor to keep the story compelling, and Urquhart is a fascinating character even without a single foil to rise against, but The Final Cut does feel a bit less nuanced and bit more weakly constructed than its two predecessors. It does, however, provide a fitting finalé to the trilogy, and it’s interesting enough to be worth a look on those grounds alone.

House of not-so-Commons…

Without a clear foil, however, the miniseries does have more room for Mrs. Urquhart, played Diane Fletcher. Elizabeth Urquhart has been a strong supporting character throughout the series, but she’s afforded the space in The Final Cut to truly come into her own. House of Cards presented her as a figure almost like Lady Macbeth, urging her husband to power no matter what methods he had to use to attain it. Throughout the trilogy, she seems wryly aware of her husband’s faults and weaknesses. She has encouraged his affairs as a way to keep him occupied, and has even recognised that he works best with a single opponent to challenge him.

As my better half astutely pointed out, you can tell that Urquhart is nearing the end of his rope when he actively defies his wife, rejecting her input on a particular situation concerning Cyprus. It’s actually the first time in the entire trilogy I think we’ve seen the pair disagree, and it’s interesting that it is very clearly Francis who is in the wrong and making the poor decision. It’s nice to see Diane Fletcher given more screentime to develop a character who has been very important throughout the series, and who proves to be pivotal to its resolution.

Prime and proper…

The Final Cut is arguably the weakest of the Francis Urquhart trilogy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t compelling television. It’s well-made, well-acted and well-produced. Ian Richardson is, as ever, well worth the price of admission in the finest role of his career, and it does make an effective conclusion to the saga.

Check out our reviews of the other installments in the Francis Urquhart trilogy:

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