The Hero’s Journey in “The Forsyte Saga”

Set beginning in 1875, the saga unfolds as British Imperialism unravels, trailing Victorian ideals behind. For all the attempts by the Forsyte’s to cling to traditional social structures, the turn of the century means moral and cultural change for Britain.

Like a microcosm of the Empire, the battle between the old and the new is played out with dramatic force within the Forsyte family, and no matter how many cricket matches they attend, or number of times they call each other “old boy” or “old thing,” change is going to come.

Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis), the embodiment of old England, makes me uncomfortable. More accurately, he makes my skin crawl. It’s his quiet intensity and the way he pursues Irene (Gina McKee) as if she were a small beautiful animal to be ensnared so he could adorn his coat with her fur. 

It’s the 1870s in the Victorian era, and what options are open to Irene except marriage? She has an income of just 50 pounds a year, her father is deceased and her step-mother wants her married. Soames, a “man of property,” is from one of the most powerful upper-middle-class families in London, and becoming his wife would secure her financially, but Irene is an independent thinker and does not like him, let alone love him.

There is no room in the Forsyte family for a woman who cherishes her freedom, and who doesn’t bend to her “duty” to her husband, even in a changing England.

Based on the Nobel Prize-winning book by John Galsworthy (“a masterpiece of an energetic, firm, and independent account of human nature”), The Forsyte Saga unfolds over three generations at the turn of the 20th century, bringing us from the Victorian era into the Edwardian, and in the second series, through World War I into the 1920s. The Forsyte Saga’s smartly choreographed scenes and luxurious settings are backed by a sweeping soundtrack and shown through exacting – and effectively entrancing – camerawork.

The narrative pivots around the tormented (wincing, stiff) Soames and (guarded, complex) Irene, but we enter into the lives of each of the Forsytes. They are a family motivated by money and propriety, who favor what the servants will think over what is best for the individual. We dwell in their pettiness, but we also revel in their romance, rejoice at their milestones, and find amusement in the gossiping dowager aunts. Death, hierarchical shifts, regret, financial strife, class issues and forbidden love agitate the family dynamic.

“The loss of a husband is nothing to the loss of a good butler.” – Aunt Hester Forsyte

There’s long been a bitter divide within the Forsyte family, but by 1899, as the British Empire wanes and societal rules change, so do the familial relationships.

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.

As a woman in love, McKee retains her cool, but then her love is something that she must lie about in order to protect it, just as she has had to lie to Soames in order to keep a roof over her head. It’s the unravelling of one lie (her marriage) and the deepening of another (her pledge to protect Bosinney from Soames) that makes McKee’s performance almost unbearable to watch. She projects nakedness and duplicity at the same time. In one pivotal scene, Irene wears a red dress to a ball. Her lover insists on dancing with her, and they waltz unaware through a sea of shocked red faces. The scene has the terrifying power of the ball scene in Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of “Madame Bovary.” We see Irene and Bosinney in love, and we see tragedy heading straight for them, like the force of the sexuality that twirls them on and on. None of this can last. Bosinney must die, indirectly, by Soames’s hand. That’s the way imperialism works: it crushes the disenfranchised. And when he dies, leaving Irene without love, McKee is listless with grief. Her pallor becomes a shroud of skin. She is mourning her sex. She cannot be forgiven for the crime that neither she nor Soames nor any other Forsyte can name without averting his eyes: having been born a woman. 

The next generation of Forsytes doesn’t understand what has transpired between their parents, and is determined to make their own decisions, but the Second Boer War could get in the way. When Queen Victoria dies the Forsytes are ushering a new era of their own.

Two children are born, and one could help save Soames from himself (allowing the viewer an opportunity to feel some reluctant sympathy, or pity, for him). At the start of season 2, women are fighting for their vote: it’s 1909. Soon it’s 1920 and there are motor cars everywhere, and the two babies are now young adults finding their way. They are John and Fleur, distant cousins, and the future of the family rests on their shoulders.

Alongside the family drama are generous country gardens teeming with wildflowers, carefully appointed opulent Georgian mansions, rides through the open fields on horseback, fine clothes to admire, and scenes that are built around theater, music and art. Every bit of this is delightful to watch, but the people are heart of the period drama.

The Forsyte Saga is a chronicle of a powerful family navigating social changes, and the story of the importance of personal freedom. It is also an emotional epic about finding the courage to fight for happiness, no matter how distant it may be, and the saga of the unstoppable force of love.