"Family sagas" always fascinate me, whether in film or in novels. Perhaps it's because everyone is part of a family, whether it be large or small, that we're interested in seeing familial relationships being played out in another place or another time. The 2002 BBC production of The Forsyte Saga takes up the challenge of being a true family saga, following the fortunes and misfortunes of the Forsytes in 19th-century England. At first glance, we see the Forsytes as part of the "upper crust," a wealthy family with plenty of leisure; as the saga develops, we swiftly move past the glittering facade to the very human and fallible characters beneath.
The miniseries production of The Forsyte Saga is based on two novels by author John Galsworthy: The Man of Property, written in 1906, and In Chancery (1920), both part of a series of novels about the Forsyte family. As the publication dates indicate, Galsworthy was a part of the time and place in which his story is set, thus giving us an insider's eye rather than a historian's retrospective on the society and culture of the time. This insider's perspective, translated to the screen and visually supported by excellent costuming and sets, gives The Forsyte Saga outstanding depth and psychological realism.
The Forsyte Saga is through and through a character-driven story, and to my great delight, I found the story to be full of richly realized, three-dimensional characters. What strikes me most is how real the characters are. No character is a hero or a villain; none are entirely unsympathetic, no matter how we might dislike them; none are flawless, regardless of how we might admire them. Take the pair of Irene (Gina McKee) and Soames (Damian Lewis), trapped in a loveless marriage. Irene in many ways is the heroically long-suffering woman... yet as her situation is the direct result of her own choices, we can feel her pain, but also recognize her own hand in the situation. Likewise, Soames is hardly a likeable character, but he is also a vividly drawn portrait of a man who hardly knows himself, let alone another human being. Despite his cold facade, he is a man of intense passion who unfortunately has never learned how to express his desires in ways that are constructive rather than destructive; even while feeling disgust at his actions, we can feel sympathy or at least pity for a character who, in a different way, is as painfully trapped as Irene.
A character drama in the best sense of the phrase, The Forsyte Saga is no soap opera. There are no implausible brothers falling in love with their long-lost twin sisters, mysterious strangers with amnesia, or convoluted affairs in which everyone is having someone else's baby. All the events in The Forsyte Saga are utterly believable, and therefore all the more affecting: what drives the story is seeing what happens to the characters we care so much about, and finding out how they respond to what happens in their lives.
In the filmic realization of The Forsyte Saga, we're treated to the fortunate combination of an excellent script that develops the characters in believable and interesting ways, and a cast of actors who bring the characters to life with depth and subtlety. In fact, so vividly-realized are the characters that, while watching the series, I could not imagine any of them as "actors" who might play a different part in some other production: the characters of The Forsyte Saga come to life as the most fully "real" people I've seen on film in a long time.
If I have one complaint to make about The Forsyte Saga, it's that it's too short. This may seem an odd thing to say about a production that is over six hours long, but the truth is that there's enough content for at least another hour or so. The story moves very rapidly through time, particularly in the first and second episodes, with the result that we hardly have the chance to be introduced to the characters before we've moved forward another six months or six years to a new set of circumstances: a disconcerting effect when one is still just getting to know the characters. Along the same lines, the secondary characters in the later episodes (mainly the Dartie and Forsyte children) are somewhat sketchily introduced, which makes it a little difficult to keep track of what's going on in those portions of the plot; fortunately, the main story does center around the main characters of Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves), Irene Heron, and Soames Forsyte.
I've mostly discussed the story and characterizations in this review, but it's well worth pointing out that The Forsyte Saga is very film-like in its composition, by which I mean that it has the sophistication and pacing of a production made for the large rather than the small screen. The six episodes of the miniseries fit together seamlessly; rather than "episodes," which calls to mind stand-alone television pieces, the parts of The Forsyte Saga play as perfectly interlocking pieces of a larger whole. Also in the favor of The Forsyte Saga is its cinematography, which is again surprisingly polished. It would be very easy for a series like this to use fairly standard cinematography, calling on the costuming and sets to take up the slack in capturing the viewer's attention, but The Forsyte Saga goes a step further in adding a layer of additional polish on the already-attractive veneer of the production. The camera work is consistently interesting, with extensive use of unexpected, introspective close-ups, creatively composed shots, and in general an imaginative cinematography that adds an extra spark to the visual appeal of the production.
The Forsyte Saga is presented in an anamorphically-enhanced widescreen 1.85:1 transfer, which gives it a definite edge up over other television productions right off the bat. Overall, the image quality ranks above average, though it would have been even better without the heavy presence of edge enhancement, which results in a definite loss of detail in middle- to long-distance shots. Contrast is not always as good as it could be, but the difficulty only arises in very dark scenes; scenes with a moderate or greater light level generally handle the contrast adequately.
Colors are pleasing to the eye, with primary colors appearing bright and lively and skin tones natural-looking throughout, even for the exceptionally pale characters like Irene. The image is free of print flaws and shows only occasional noise. All in all, it's an attractive transfer that makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.
The Forsyte Saga is presented in a solid Dolby 2.0 mix. Music is integrated well into the soundtrack, with the volume rising and falling appropriately in accordance with the dialogue; the presence or absence of music is also used skillfully for effect on several occasions. On the whole, it's a soundtrack that presents its dialogue cleanly and competently, and provides for an enjoyable listening experience.
The first of the three discs in The Forsyte Saga has a few minor special features. There's a 20-minute featurette on the making of the miniseries, along with a behind-the-scenes photo gallery and text information on the cast and author John Galsworthy.
The three discs of the set are packaged in individual keepcases that are enclosed in an attractive glossy paper slipcover. After getting through an irritating unskippable introduction, the DVD menus are straightforward and easy to navigate
The Forsyte Saga takes on an epic task, and while it doesn't handle it entirely to perfection, the result is nonetheless a richly detailed, compelling story, one that kept me anxious to watch the next installment. I cared about the characters, and found myself deeply involved in the story of their lives: hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and in any case eager to see the next installment of the series. The Forsyte Saga undoubtedly has very high rewatchability: it will be a whole new viewing experience to watch the series from the beginning while knowing the characters already.