Handsome to be sure...but a depressingly staid, obvious adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning John Galsworthy's celebrated novels. Acorn has re-released The Forsyte Saga Collection, a 2-volume, 5-disc, 10-episode gathering of England's Granada Television's 2002 remake of The Forsyte Saga, and its second "series" sequel, The Forsyte Saga: To Let, from 2003. The original 1967 BBC version of The Forsyte Saga was a landmark in British television history...but this rather routine, familiar remake won't seriously challenge the original's iconic position. No new extras precludes any double-dipping.
England, 1874. A very brief synopsis of the main story from this complicated, multi-subplot yarn. Joylon Forsyte, Jr. (Rupert Graves) has committed a grave, life-changing error within the restrictive rules of his upper middle-class family: he has left his socially acceptable wife Frances (Sarah Winman) for his child's governess, commoner Helene (Amanda Ooms). This act of romantic rebellion costs him his inheritance, as well as banishment from the family by his gruff father, Jolyon Forsyte, Sr. (Corin Redgrave). Ten years later, Joylon's cousin, Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis), a rigid, ruthless member of the Forsyte banking business, finds himself instantly obsessed with Irene Heron (Gina McKee), a penniless beauty he spies while on seaside vacation in Bournemouth. Pursuing her with the single-minded intent he employs for all his transactions of valuable possessions, he finds Irene gradually slipping away from his attentions, until Irene's equally impoverished step-mother helps convince the reluctant Irene to accept Soames' repeated marriage proposals. That acceptance comes with one caveat: should she declare herself unhappy, she requests that Soames honor his promise to let her go. Within two years, the unhappy Irene is secretly preventing any possibility of pregnancy by Soames. Irene soon becomes close to June (Gillian Kearney), Young Jolyon's daughter who remained with Francis (now deceased) and who is watched over carefully by doting Jolyon, Sr.. June's new beau, Phillip Bosinney (Ioan Gruffudd), is a poor, struggling architect who finds himself powerful attracted to Irene...and vice versa. What follows shatters the lives of everyone involved, as well as forever altering the future of Soames', Irene's, and Jolyon, Jr.'s children.
Certainly to TV buffs, if one mentions The Forsyte Saga, the landmark 1967 BBC production starring Eric Porter and Sir Kenneth More first comes to mind. I know it did for me...because I mistakenly thought this particular DVD set was that original miniseries, and not the remake (and that's why I unwittingly requested it). I have no idea if anyone is still reading John Galsworthy, a highly-regarded, popular English writer from the first quarter of the 20th century; however, the remarkable impact of that earlier black and white TV series still reverberates whenever one sees the countless long-form period dramas that soon followed on British television. It's been reported that The Forsyte Saga was so popular during its 1967 and 1968 runs, pubs and churches complained that attendees were scarce on Sunday nights (over 18 million tuned into its finale―an astounding number for little Britain). When it came to America in 1969, The Forsyte Saga almost single-handedly jump-started the NET public network (soon to morph into PBS); it proved so popular that fall that in 1970, NET created Masterpiece Theater with Alistair Cook to provide a venue for more imported British dramas (which it would soon start funding itself). The Forsyte Saga's success also gave the Big Three networks the idea for the miniseries, a format that would flower during its golden age in the 1970s, which isn't difficult to understand when this mini eventually reached an international audience of well over a 150 million―an astounding number at that time, and a first for any British television production. There's no question that when we think of British television's single most identifiable exported product―the long-form period drama―its antecedents lie squarely at The Forsyte Saga's feet.
...but this ain't that show. Now, I haven't seen the original 1967 version since I was a kid (and what I vaguely remember of it was pretty good), so it's not fair to judge this remake against a memory that far removed. However, taking this newer The Forsyte Saga strictly at face value...it's difficult to imagine it would be considered in any way as any kind of a "landmark" in the years to come. Digging around for a little background info on this 2002 mini (since I avoided it on purpose when it first came out), I came across a statement attributed to the producer who claimed Galsworthy's non-linear flashback structuring wasn't "right" for TV, being too complex for the audience as opposed to say, Dickens. That play-it-safe attitude may well be at the very core of The Forsyte Saga's troubles: it's so thoroughly predicable and routine in conception and execution. I'm fairly certain that even the most casual TV watcher can handle a basic non-linear "memory" structure for a story (after all...isn't that nothing more than, "Once upon a time..."?), so why the producer didn't feel it was "right" for television is anybody's guess. However, after decades and decades of TV serials that look and play out exactly the same way this version of The Forsyte Saga does, wouldn't you think someone might want to make this go-around more distinctive and actually follow the source material more closely―if nothing more than to make it stand apart? This kind of thinking―keep it safe, keep it easy to understand, the audience can't handle anything more difficult week-to-week―is exactly why an expensive piece like The Forsyte Saga doesn't stand out the way it should. The attitude of the producers going in was apparently: we have to make it easier for the audience...with the result being a product that looks no different than hundreds of other similar efforts.
You can extend that thinking to how the characters are drawn, too. If we feel a certain conflict in our empathy for these deeply flawed characters, I would suggest that comes primarily from whichever actor is onscreen, and not the screenplay (...and not too many of the actors here pull that neat little trick off). For example, the entire Soames/Irene main story arc is predicated on Irene experiencing some kind of hell being married to him...but we never see an extended, nuanced dramatization of what married life is like for these two mismatched people. We're just told she's miserable. Of course, the easiest path to showing the audience how things are bad is to focus on Irene's rape by Soames; that's the kind of flashy, dramatic scene that TV producers eat up (of course it's deeply ironic that Galsworthy, apparently, dealt with this terrible act in one passed-off sentence, recounting it via a dispassionate narrator after the fact). But The Forsyte Saga chronically just "hits the high spots" of any scene, failing to develop any kind of subtle, shaded dynamics between characters. Back when the original 1967 version was broadcast, savvy critics labeled it a soap opera, regardless of its British pedigree of fine actors―and right they were. If you've read any of my other reviews for similar types of efforts, I don't use the term "soap opera" as a pejorative. It's a viable form just like a thriller or a comedy or a musical, and if it's done well, it can be just as acceptable as a work of "art" (whatever that is) as any so-called "highbrow" effort.
This version of The Forsyte Saga, though, is soap opera at its thinnest. The clothes lay correctly; the sets and real locations are nicely appointed, and everyone looks suitably doomed to eventual unhappiness. However, the way the events of the story are structured and dispatched, one gets the feeling that a commercial for radial tires could pop up at any moment without causing the slightest ripple in our blasé attention. Shouldn't this be gripping? Shouldn't this tale of thwarted love, smothering love, perverted love, really, and the crushing folly of pure chance aiding human misunderstandings―shouldn't this really swoon us? Instead, we're given a glacially smooth, thoroughly bored tone that I'll bet everyone involved thought was suitably "period," but which enervates and dissipates every ounce of dramatic tension in the piece. The Irene character is the worst offender here. According to what I've read, Galsworthy necessarily kept the character deliberately shadowy and elusive, but apparently, the filmmakers here felt she should be centrally concrete to the story.
Why, then, did they bother to cast an performer who acts as if she's just coming out of the dentist's ether? I don't buy at all the producers' efforts to make Irene a sympathetic character here (I doubt Galsworthy viewed her that way, either), but for christ's sake, couldn't they have at least made her magnetic? Why are all these men killing themselves to be with her? It's impossible to say, seeing the way McKee essays her. She doesn't possess any inner eroticism that could at least transmit those motivations to the viewer just through the power of her on-screen attraction, and she doesn't seem to be inclined to alter her facial expressions beyond "glassy-eyed ennui." To be fair, most of the other actors don't come out much better. Lewis' one-note performance becomes exceeding grotesque as it goes on and on, to the point where he seems to be stifling an urge to turn Soames in Mr. Hyde as he face contorts outrageously in an effort to tamp down emotions we're only half-interested in in the first place. And Graves gives a remarkably funny parody of the kinds of performances of his that used to impress us: his Joylon is a chubby-faced dullard sweetheart who's fairly soaked through and through with the milk of human kindness. It's a "hundred violins" turn that becomes wickedly, unintentionally funny as his character supposedly "ages" and becomes more infirmed. So with the events of Galsworthy's story smoothed out and simplified into a clichéd framework, and with actors who can't make anything but mush from their poorly-drawn characters, the most basic necessities of a soap aren't fulfilled...let alone anyone coming faintly close to delineating what Galsworthy probably had in mind in the first place: some good old fashion guilt about England's class system (I defy anyone to explain to me in detail who's snobbing whom, and exactly why, within the various branches of the Forsyte family, as delineated here―Galsworthy fans: don't cheat).
The Forsyte Saga: To Let, if possible, is even more insubstantial. Abandoning any pretense of producing a drama that has a viable context within societal/class structure/historical structuring, The Forsyte Saga: To Let most often resembles exactly what it shouldn't: a horny teen romance novel, complete with a couple of dewy-eyed hotties: sexy Emma Griffiths Malin as Fleur Forsyte, the offspring of Soames and a French waitress (you think the Soames/Irene romance was tiresome?), and Lee Williams as Jon Forsyte, Jolyon and Irene's son. I have to believe that Galsworthy had something meaningful to say within the context of his novel, To Let, but as it's conveyed here, one might think he was the inventor of the Harlequin® romance paperback, such is the reduced circumstances of the drama. Loose ends from the previous series are tied up, but clearly the writers (who previously worked on Corrie) are more interested in the mooning young lovers working themselves into alternating snits and heaving heebie jeebies than any supposed commentary on Galsworthy's themes. True, this focus on the tactile conventions of the soap genre is more aesthetically honest than the first series, but at least the first one made a stab at a wider field of vision. To Let is as cornball as they come...and just as depressingly obvious and familiar.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.