Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Forsyte Saga

The version of the Forsyte Saga mentioned here is the 2002-2003 TV mini-series with Damian Lewis and Gina McKee. Yes the one in colour.

The Forsyte Saga is a sprawling storyline about a well-to-do family in Victorian England. Most of the story explores the unhappy marriage between Soames and his wife Irene (pronounced Ireny), and the consequences of Irene's affair with Phillip Bossinney. Phillip himself is engaged to another Forsyte family member. After being introduced as a talented architect, he is commissioned by Soames to build a country house for he and Irene away from London and the rest of the Forsyte clan.

The Saga is a sumptuous period piece about love, obsession and letting go. However, at face value it all sounds like a daytime soap, and some of the plot twists are fairly farfetched. The first 20 minutes require some concentration. There are so many similarly dressed characters introduced quickly, and starts with a scandal which felt flat because there was not yet any emotion invested in these characters.

Jolyon Forsyte is a cousin to Soames, and their two branches of the family tree don't get along. Jolyon ups and leaves his wife and young child to live with the nanny. What a cliche! We don't know much about the bohemian artist Jolyon yet. Due to this, it is difficult to feel interested or convinced in the abrupt way the separation occurs. It is only when Soames meets his future wire Irene and begins his sweetly awkward courtship that the series engages, and the inevitable comparison to Jolyon's separation lurks in the background.

The Forsyte clan all carry the 'possessive and materialistic' gene. Soames in particular is proud, narrow-minded, authoritative and driven. In the course of the drama, we also see the emotional inheritance of being a 'Forsyte'. They love wildly and passionately, a manic limerance or obsession which is at odds to the financial-transaction-style marriages they pragmatically endorse. When a Forsyte falls in love, they want to mean everything to and do everything for their victim. This need to be needed often draws them to penniless talent, charm and beauty; there is a higher chance of meaning more to their object of affection. Soames and four other Forsytes suffer love in this style, with varying levels of return.

Above: Soames and Irene after their first dance together.

Soames is the culmination of all that the Forsytes pride in property, and suffer in possessiveness. This character is one of the most interesting villains I've ever watched, and Damian Lewis as Soames does a wonderful job of portraying the range of emotions the character suffers in his failed marriage. He is a rigid complex of so much emotional ignorance and ever-persevering passion. It is difficult to condemn him as a simple villain and brute. We see so much bewilderment, vulnerability, persistent and poorly expressed love that it is hard not to sympathise with him most of the time. Mostly I wished to grab him by the shoulders, shake him and advise "Let it go! Learn from it and move on!"

Soames' pitiful victim of obsession and circumstance is Irene. She is forced to marry Soames although she does not love him, otherwise she will be cast out by her step-mother after her father's death. Since marriages of convenience are the trend rather than exception, she gambles her future on love and acceptance developing later in the marriage. She also makes Soames promise to let her go free if the marriage is not a success. Unfortunately the gamble does not pay off, and a few years later her dislike of Soames has grown to the point where her marriage is a leash, and Soames is unconsciously choking her spirit. To compensate for the forced physical closeness of living under the same roof, she is emotionally distant, unresponsive and cold to him. Such is her revulsion she takes steps secretly to prevent having children. Gina McKee as Irene portrays 'guarded and aloof' very well. Unfortunately Irene and the architect's long lingering looks in church did not convince me of their great love, and there is much more chemistry between the architect and his fiance June, Soames' cousin-once-removed.

In this tale of marital strife, family feuds and torrid affairs, there is no easy ending with unconvincing altruism or sacrifice. Soames' relationship with Irene is compared and contrasted to those of other Forsytes, especially Jolyon, Winifred and June. We watch the characters suffer the consequences of their actions. To what extent they learn from their mistakes and overcome their hereditary and individual character traits is for the viewer to discover and enjoy. Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

I'm just about to watch this series for the first time, so it was nice to get an overview. I found this throught the Damian Lewis list on Yahoo. Great job summarizing the plot. Thanks!

Lina said...

I haven't seen it but heard a lot of good about it frm people who has. Thou I'm still not sure it's my kind of drama, so not sure if I should/will watch it. Thou I might watch it just because Damian Lewis is in it and I usally love the charachters he plays!