When the original “Forsyte Saga” aired on PBS in 1969, it was something of a phenom, helping to set the standard for miniseries and establishing the benchmark for the Masterpiece Theater skein. This eight-hour remake is more lavish and sensual, the acting generally graceful and convincing and the central themes more clearly delineated than in thelanguorous black-and-white original thatsprawled over 26 episodes. If you catch this “Dallas” with bustles in rerun on PBS, there are many delights and only a few drawbacks. If you enjoy only “Fear Factor,” “American Idol” and “The OC,” you probably won’t relate to these beautifully costumed but tightly corseted characters or their moral predicaments.
For Granada, the series is in the tradition of that commercial station’s best period pieces (think “Brideshead Revisited” and “Jewel in the Crown”) — even if the John Galsworthy novels from which this mini is culled are more narrowly focused than those more expansive epics.
The world of the Forsytes is that stuffy Victorian era of upper-class twits and top hats — much more “Upstairs” than “Downstairs,” as it were.
The action, encompassing 1874 to 1905, centers on Soames Forsyte (played masterfully by Damien Lewis), a man of property whose unhappy marriage to the exquisite but aloof Irene Heron (Gina McKee) is the centerpiece of the series.
The skein comes down in favor of what one character calls “spark,” — the word sex is never uttered — and points up the limits of loveless relationships. Every move the possessive Soames makes, for example, grates against his wife, who a free spirit (albeit a properly contained one). Other marriages offer variations on the theme, including that of Soames’ long-suffering sister, Winifred, and her feckless bounder of a husband, Monty.
That Soames, with his pallid complexion, milky eyes and haughty demeanor, manages at different times to be sympathetic is a tribute both to the screenwriter and the actor.
McKee, too, turns in a complex performance, alternating between cool passivity and beguiling warmth.
Galsworthy’s overarching theme is the clash of cultures at the turn of the century (the 20th, that is) when traditional moral, cultural and social values were being challenged. Although there are redeeming qualities in the characters who espouse “the old ways,” there’s no doubt on which side Galsworthy, and the makers of this TV saga, come down.
Mostly, the viewer intuits outside events from the impact (or lack thereof) they have on the characters: We don’t see the Boer war, for example, but the younger generation is caught up in it.
And while we don’t see, in fact, very much at all beyond the verbal interaction between the central characters within their lovely homes, those homes are emblematic of the characters who inhabit them: Soames’ is an invidious shade of green, while the country house built for Irene is open and airy.
What makes the individual Forsytes interesting and ignites dramatic conflict is the fact that as a clan, they are divided in their approach to the world.
Not that the older generation of Forsytes is despicable or unlikable — or without humor. As one of the elder aunts points out, “the loss of a husband is nothing compared to the loss of a good butler.”
After Irene eventually leaves Soames — on the heels of a disastrous love affair (she is not cold with everyone) — she gravitates toward the more artistic, open-hearted wing of the family, represented most endearingly bySoames’ cousin Jolyon, a painter who lives in relative poverty and runs off with his daughter’s governess.
Here, Colin Redgrave takes a lovely turn as Old Jolyon, and though Rupert Graves as Young Jolyon and Gillian Kearney as the latter’s elder daughter June are also fine, these latter two actors seem so close in age it’s hard to think of them as father and daughter.
Like most good British series, this one admirably captures the texture and tone of the epoch. Dialogue is always in keeping with the times (though occasionally hard for an American ear), the posture of the characters always correctly stiff or decorously relaxed — an art pretty much lost by TV thesps playing period in America.
There are also moments of high drama, though that concept is miles from what we’ve come to expect in our popcorn-movie culture. Still, it works, as when Soames, losing all composure, bites his lip to blood upon seeing Irene and young Jolyon dining together at the very restaurant his French shopgirl mistress manages.
There’s also a quite remarkable scene in which Irene leaves the conjugal bed after having intercourse with Soames, and goes through the elaborate motions then required to douche herself. (It eventually reverberates throughout the family that the two sleep in separate bedrooms.)
There are also betrayals, reconciliations, a rape and even perhaps a murder, though the circumstances remain ambiguous.
The series is left open-ended, with Soames having finally succeeded in fathering a child, though pipped at the gate by Irene — and her consort.
A follow-up series, which originally aired on PBS last fall, traces the lives of the younger Forsyte generation, focusing, not surprisingly, on the direct offspring of Soames and Irene.