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A Seductive Remake of ‘Forsyte Saga’

War with Iraq and problems in other potential hot spots loom, the economy is depressing, the stock market woeful. With 2002 a throbbing ache, escape to the past is especially seductive.

So right on cue comes John Galsworthy’s Victorians in a stunning, if cast-flawed, remake of the “The Forsyte Saga,” drawn from three volumes he wrote early in the last century.

A BBC adaptation first landed in the late 1960s as a celebrated 26-part marathon in England before transferring to public television in the U.S. and creating a zest here for costume drama from the Brits.

Viewers with selective memories swear by the relatively rudimentary earlier production that was telecast in black and white. Anglophiles recall it fondly as the impetus for “Masterpiece Theater,” which would get famous on PBS by waving the Union Jack.

Now comes “The Forsyte Saga” anew, this one from Granada Television, as “Masterpiece Theatre” looks to its own roots in a fall TV season already tilting toward nostalgia of a more plebeian kind. Opening with a two-hour splash to be followed by one-hour episodes on six successive Sundays, “The Forsyte Saga” is TV’s version of a scrumptious novel, in some ways trashy, that you can’t put down as it chronicles three generations of a family. Once sorted out (have patience), its high-toned Londoners and their thundering crises provide a welcome distraction from these distressing times. And in more good news, “The Forsyte Saga” is being extended in a subsequent Granada production now in the works.

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Instead of today’s global havoc, better turbulence comes from this cloister of mostly snooty, pretentious top-hatters whose relationships are defined by money and class, even though the Forsytes themselves are hardly an old family with standing, being just (sniff, sniff) several generations into wealth.

Oxford accents are rarely tonier, upper lips rarely stiffer than here. What are this crowd’s priorities? As one doddering Forsyte aunt huffs: “The loss of a husband is nothing [compared] to the loss of a good butler.”

You get gentlemen being gentlemen here, in an environment where a fellow can make his way if he can inherit enough capital. You also get silken gaiety contrasting with polite society’s impoliteness. Directed beautifully by Christopher Menaul and David Moore, and adapted by Jan McVerry and Stephen Mallatratt, this is just the ticket for Sunday nights.

It’s scintillating soap opera in bustles, tails, stiff collars and cravats, a tangle of betrayals turning largely on Soames Forsyte’s (Damian Lewis) destructive infatuation with impoverished Irene (Gina McKee) in an atmosphere of panoramic lushness. She weds Soames for his fortune and loathes him. Their childless marriage is calamitous in this impressively staged story, one whose tragedies, for him, her and others, multiply and converge.

And no wonder, for even as Soames loves Irene to the point of obsession, she loves architect Philip Bosinney (Ioan Gruffudd), and later Soames’ cousin, Young Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves). Young Jolyon’s daughter, June (Gillian Kearney), also loves Bosinney, who loves Irene. Young Jolyon’s wife loves him, but he loves his young daughter’s nanny, Helene Hilmer (Amanda Ooms), before falling for Irene. Young Jolyon’s father, Old Jolyon Forsyte (Corin Redgrave), also adores Irene. Soames’ sister, Winifred (Amanda Root), loves her husband, Montague Dartie (Ben Miles), a worthless bounder who (bummer) loves only booze, money, gambling and other women.

Then they have tea.

Although most performances here are admirable, the actor to relish most is Lewis, whose Yankspeak was impeccable as American Maj. Richard Winters in last season’s “Band of Brothers” on HBO.

His repressed Soames is more magnetic and interesting to behold, walking rigidly at attention in his dark suit of clothes, his manner funereal, only his eyes hinting at the implosions beneath his leaden demeanor. In fact, he’s Vesuvius ready to blow.

A partner in the family’s law firm, Soames is a hypocrite who projects moral superiority. He is so tightly coiled that at one point he draws blood while biting his lip in anger. He is diffident, judgmental, cold and superficially arrogant, treating even some members of his family as clerks.

“Damn Soames with thousands in the bank and nothing in his soul,” the adult June says about her cousin, whose glints of humanity surface only near the end of these eight hours.

His opposite is her father, soulful Young Jolyon, who early in the story forsakes a life of privilege by running off with Helene and becoming a bohemian artist. Despite their blemished pasts, in fact, Young Jolyon and Old Jolyon are ultimately the story’s most honorable characters.

“The Forsyte Saga” is scarred by a pair of casting choices, the least damaging of which has Kearney playing Young Jolyon’s daughter as an adult even though she and Graves appear about the same age.

More critical is the miscasting of McKee as Irene, the character who drives much of the conflict.

Hoping to win over his wife with grand new surroundings, Soames decides to build her a mansion in the country. His decision to hire Bosinney to design it backfires, throwing Irene and the young architect together.

There’s a wonderful ballroom scene with Irene and Bosinney gliding across the floor eye to eye, the intensity of their bond captured in the shocked expressions of those observing their hothouse behavior. Having the camera not dwell on the smitten couple is wise directing, for the chemistry supposedly binding Bosinney and Irene is nonexistent on the screen.

McKee’s pivotal Irene is not just a dent but a gaping pothole in this saga of Forsytes. Although tall and graceful, can she be the “Goddess” that Galsworthy describes? The face that launches male libidos and has Bosinney vowing, “I would grub my fingers in the soil, sell my soul to spend my life with you?” The erotic force that has Soames so revved up that he ultimately stalks her like a nighttime Ripper in the warrens of lower-class London? Has him so consumed that after she leaves him, he dances alone in a room while clinging to her red ball gown?

It’s a testament to the material’s strength, and its handling here, that “The Forsyte Saga” still manages to succeed. No disrespect to present host Russell Baker, but it’s almost as if Alistair Cooke had returned and “Masterpiece Theatre” were again offering TV’s fullest repertoire of Western literature.

“The Forsyte Saga” will be shown at 9 p.m. Sundays (through Nov. 17) on KCET. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@ latimes.com.


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