“Life is a dance we must learn” – Reviewing The Forsyte Saga

As promised in a recent entry, here’s a separate post about the 2002 adaptation of John Galworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. I watched it just before Christmas and then I brought it back to my parents and ended up watching the whole thing again over Christmas, because my mum wanted to see it, too.

This was no great sacrifice for me – watching the entire series again so soon. I loved the series. Telling the story of the extended Forsyte family from the year 1874 to 1920, The Forsyte Saga recounts a saga of love, marriage, sex, violence, spite, and friendship, all with the tumultuous fin-de-siècle/early-20th-century events as its riveting backdrop. Main character Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis) marries the beautiful, artistic Irene Heron (Gina McKee), who doesn’t love him. At the same time, Soames’ cousin Jolyon divorces his wife in order to pursue a relationship with his daughter’s governess Helène. This becomes the on-set of a series of events and feuds that come to hold significance for the fate of the family.

Damian Lewis
No expenses seem to have been spared in this mini-series adaptation by ITV from 2002-2003 – it is a piece of quality. This comes through possibly most importantly in the casting of the series which is almost perfect and presents a line of incredible actors. The best of these is, to me, Damian Lewis as Soames. As I’ve declared before I have fallen hopelessly in love with Soames Forsyte, and I am certain that I have Damian Lewis to thank for this. John Galsworthy himself found that while Soames could easily be called the villain of the story, it is hard not to sympathise with him at least a little, and Damian Lewis conveys this beautifully. His Soames is not a “tortured man” like the clichés you find in bad romance stories, and Lewis leaves nothing ambigious in the infamous scene in which Soames rapes his wife. But more than anything he comes across as a pitiful man whose empathical limitations allow him to be caught tragically uncomfortably between two worlds – Victorian England and a new, modern world.

He's not too hard on the eyes either. But that's a different story...

Damian Lewis depicted this conflict so well by way of his brilliantly awkward body language, and also by his absolutly incredible ability to portray an aging man. 31-32 two years of age while the series was being shot, Damian Lewis somehow manages to convincingly embody Soames’ character from being in his late twenties to being a man of sixty-something. The make-up does a lot here of course, but Damian Lewis does most of the work, gradually and very subtly changing his acting as the series progresses.

“Moments are given, then gone”
And I feel that this is the over-all conflict that the series manages to convey so well: This conflict of being caught between two different eras. Focusing mostly on romantic relationships between men and women, the series depicts the marital problems that arose in a time when appearances and reality started to become visibly arbitrary. Irene, married to Soames Forsyte, dances in public at a formal ball with her lover, but at the same time her husband owns her to the point where she is not even free to prosecute him if he violently rapes her. And her lover is her and her husband’s architect of all people; the man who is designing the married couple’s supposed love nest. Soames’ sister Winifred lives in a lovely, but nearly empty house because her husband gambles up all their money. Jolyon lives for many years with his mistress and has two children with her, but can never marry her until his first wife dies.

It’s as if all these characters are caught in a time that they can’t quite keep up with, and the theme is there even in the beautiful and lusciously detailed art direction. The art director has made sure to make clocks play an important part in the cinematography, and the camera focuses not infrequently on pocket watches, grandfather clocks or the dialers of sitting room clocks, their hands moving steadily while an increasing web of lines and wrinkles trace the faces of our bewildered characters.

Teddy Bear-like Jolyon, Statuesque Irene
The other actors deserve mention as well; Rupert Graves is a lovely Jolyon, every bit as kind-looking with his brown eyes as Soames is cold-looking with his icy blue. Yet Graves also leaves room for a teddy bear-like clumsy helplessness that ensures that Jolyon doesn’t become a hero: Good as Jolyon is, he is not a man of action, and revolutionary as his ideals may be, he is still living off of his conservative family’s fortune.

If Jolyon is Soames’ counterpoint then surely his energetic June is the poised Irene’s, and Gillian Kearney plays June’s part beautifully. Quick-tempered yet fair, she never quite captures the hearts of the men in her life, but she easily gains the viewers’ sympathy.

Amanda Root is a wonderful actress and a joy to behold as Winifred, and Lee Williams is pretty and appropriately vague as the indecisive Jon who fails to find the strenght put the family’s problematic past behind him.

The only part of the casting – and the series as a whole – that I wasn’t completely sold on was the casting of Irene. Almost every review of the Forsyte Saga mentions this as a problem and some even state that Gina McKee’s Irene ruined the series for them, because they couldn’t see why all the men would fall in love with her, or that they downright hated Irene in this adaptation. I wouldn’t go that far; I do see where they were going with this particular Irene. Gina McKee fits the aesthetic ideal of the late 19th century with her tall, lean body, her pale skin, narrow face and watery eyes. She rather reminds me of impressionist works like this one:

Paul Gauguin: Portrait of a Young Girl

In that context, it makes sense for the male characters to be smitten with Irene – she’s like a fin-de-siècle cover girl. However, there’s still something missing in McKee’s Irene in order for this to work. McKee’s Irene becomes too much of a picture, I think, and there is not enough life in her. Even before her character is unhappily married to Soames she seems cold and rigid. She’s statuesque, but to the point of inanimity. Irene states several times that she loves to dance, but McKee doesn’t really have a dancers disposition and comes across as gawky and awkward on the dance floor rather than bewitchingly sensual. In her best moments McKee was slightly similar to Gillian Anderson in Bleak House, and I couldn’t help thinking that Anderson might have been a better, more vibrant and sensual choice for Irene’s part.

But as I said, this in no way ruined the series for me. It’s a wonderful series and very recommendable. It’s a document of a time in history that changed our entire culture, and it’s a moving, timeless story of the difficulties of love and marriage.

5 responses to ““Life is a dance we must learn” – Reviewing The Forsyte Saga

  1. Nice commentary, sums it all up beautifully I think

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Bruce! It is a wonderful series.

  3. I agree with you. I loved Soames and I disliked Irene. I, too, didn’t understand (by the way the part was played) why these men would fall in love with her. She not only seemed cold, but also arrogant and egotistical. She actually looked like she was smirking a lot of the time, especially with Soames.

  4. For the most part I agree with your assessment. You summed the production up very well. I couldn’t agree more, especially with McKee’s stiff performance, and to a degree her pale appearance, which in Victorian times denoted breeding and class; but I disagree with your assessment of her untypical Victorian body type. While I have liked McKee in other productions she was clearly miscast for this part. The original BBC production’s Irene was also off the mark appearance wise, looking too 60ish with the bouffant hairdo and dramatic eyeliner. But, her voluptuous body type was all the rage in the Victorian era, where corsets pushed up and enlarged the breast and bustles created the illusion of large derrieres. In the Victorian era McKee’s slim body type would be viewed as spinsterish in an adult woman. As to Gauguin’s portrait of a young girl, it is only that after all, a young girl not yet a woman.

  5. I just saw this on Netflix and I was overjoyed at the series’ ability to make me feel so many emotions. At the point where Irene refused Soames a divorce while simultaneously refusing to live as his wife, I got so mad I punched something and cut my knuckles. She is proud and careless. She marries Soames for his money, then refuses to be his wife while later refusing him a divorce. If there’s one thing I can’t stand is irrationality. She’s a snake in the grass b___! I’m a woman and yes, sometimes women are cornered into certain positions, but she created her own mess and should have never tried to keep Soames an emotional hostage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s