Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The Forsyte Saga

Today I finally watched the last episode of The Forsyte Saga, something I'd been putting off because I didn't want to let it go, and because the conditions had to be just right -- no interruptions, no competing demands, no distractions.

The Saga is of course based on the novels of John Galsworthy, the Nobel prize winner, written in 1906-21. Galsworthy was hugely popular in his day, particularly as a playwright, but his fame waned the minute he died, and his works remained forgotten until the BBC made an adaptation in 1967 of the Saga. Even then, that did little to revive interest in his other work.

The version I was watching was the 2002 adaptation for ITV with WGBH of Boston, and the later 2003 sequel. It stars Damien Lewis as Soames, Rupert Graves as Young Jolyon, Gina McKee as Irene and Corin Redgrave as Old Jolyon.

The story is set from 1886 (according to the book, although the TV series seems to have started earlier, according to some reviews) until 1920. Aside from an important plot-point revolving around the Boer War, nothing from the outside world encroaches on the Forsytes' lives, in the series at least. I haven't actually read the trilogy, and only looked up the preface to see if it would clarify a few points I'm making here.

The story concerns two branches of the Forsyte family, making their way up the social ladder to the top of the upper-middle class. One one side, Soames the solicitor, himself responsible for much of his family's fortune, and very much concerned with accumulating possessions, including artworks. The title of the first novel, A Man of Property, refers to him, and that trait is to be crucial to what follows. 

On the other side, Young Jolyon, the artistic type. The first we see of him is his longing looks at his child's nanny -- and if anyone can deliver a longing look it's Rupert Graves, with his great soft puppy-dog eyes. Sure enough Jolyon decides to run off with his nanny, and his father disowns him as a result. That theme -- the need to follow your heart and go wherever love will take you -- is also a thread that runs all the way through the work right to the closing pages, when we learn that Soames can now empathise with Irene's son, who finds himself in the same spot as Soames once did. And that Soames' daughter is now trapped in a loveless marriage, like her own mother, and like Irene once was.

Irene is the star around which all the other bodies in the Forsyte universe turn. She is from genteel lower-middle class origin, and is courted by Soames after he uncharacteristically falls for her at first sight. She agrees to marry him only when he pledges to release her if she ever needs to be let go. Her family is in two minds about her: on the one hand she is stunningly beautiful and statuesque; on the other she is glacial and untouchable.

Irene is played by Gina McKee, who I've had reason to praise already in these posts, and she's a magnificent creature here. It's easy to imagine how a dry stick like Soames (although he does have hidden passions) could lose his mind over her. And easy to imagine how the rest of her admirers who follow could all do the same. McKee is called upon to portray all of that, however, while rarely being given any emoting to do. There are one or two incidents, and the rest is Irene being enigmatic. She is in fact someone who has to be seen through other people's eyes. Amazingly, McKee pulls it off.

Damien Lewis is simply masterful as Soames, from the smugness and self-satisfaction of his early conquests to the crippling rage and frustration that consume him later when he realises that his notions of property and ownership have no bearing on the rest of the world. Lewis, who was only 31 when the series was made, ages with the help of only a light coating of collodion and some painted-on liver spots. What makes his performance more convincing is the way he inhabits his clothing, all pressed wool and starched linen, and his body too. He seems to carry his hands in a permanent tetanic fist, thumbs along the seams of his trousers. His shoulders become bowed as if carrying a huge weight, and his walk is the very portrayal of the word "constipated".

His performance is also a masterclass in understatement, because Soames is constantly trying to keep his animal feelings inside, to maintain decorum and face. He seems to chew the inside of his own mouth, and at one point he bit his lip and bled. I am quite convinced that wasn't make-up.

Rupert Graves is not called upon to do anything other than what he always does. He is soft and flowing where Soames is angular and razor-edged; spiritual where Soames is material; open and forgiving where Soames is clammed-up and vindictive. If there is one major criticism of the work as a whole, it would be that rather too programmatic pitching of opposites.

A special word for Corin Redgrave, who plays Old Jolyon. What a charmer he turns out to be. At first he rejects his son for throwing over his wife for a servant. Later, though, the wind of mortality leads him to relent, and he not only reconciles with his son (we see where Young Jolyon gets his soft heart from) he also forms a delightful bond with Irene, unknown to anyone else. Redgrave has always been one of our most under-rated and under-employed actors, probably as a result of his loony Socialist Worker politics. It's too bad. He's just great here.

I was watching The Forsyte Saga on DVD. I am now obliged to go out and buy the book, then find the time to read it. More about that if the time ever comes.