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'The Forsyte Saga' a delicious diversion

Sunday, October 06, 2002

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 1969, the fledgling PBS aired the sumptuous British drama "The Forsyte Saga," giving birth to the miniseries. The Victorian-era tale of a wealthy family entangled in affairs of love, lust and revenge proved to American TV audiences that those stuffy Brits weren't terminally boring after all. "Masterpiece Theatre" was born.


"The Forsyte Saga"

When: 9 tonight; one-hour episodes airing at 9 p.m. Sundays Oct. 13 through Nov. 17 on PBS.

Starring: Damian Lewis, Gina McKee, Rupert Graves, Ioan Gruffudd and Corin Redgrave.

Thirty-three years and countless miniseries later, PBS revisits John Galsworthy's "Forsyte Saga" with a tightly plotted, impeccably acted remake. This first installment of eight hour-long episodes comprises the first two books of the saga which cinched Galsworthy's 1932 Nobel Prize for Literature. Filming of the remaining volume has already begun in England. By the end of this first installment, you'll be panting for the sequel.

In this adaptation, penned by Stephen Mallatratt and Jan McVerry and directed by Christopher Menaul and David Moore, Galsworthy's richly satirical portrait of a noveau riche London family of barristers and businessmen is pared down to its essentials. And that is the highly charged story of the tortured Soames Forsyte, whose arrogance, possessiveness and repressed passion have cut him off from the prize he truly seeks, the love of his trophy wife, Irene. Their tempestuous marriage has repercussions throughout the family.

Tonight's airing of episodes 1 and 2 starts the action in 1874 when the first crack in the Forsyte veneer threatens to sully the family name. Soames' cousin Young Jolyon (a wimpish Rupert Graves) forsakes his proper but loveless marriage for his 3-year-old daughter June's governess. Old Jolyon (Corin Redgrave) joins the family in shunning his son.

Fifteen years pass. Soames (Damian Lewis) is obsessed with Irene Heron (Gina McKee). Used to getting what he wants, Soames cannot understand why she repeatedly refuses to marry him. She does not love him, but in the world of the Forsytes, love is a poor cousin to the security and power of property. An accomplished pianist and lover of the arts, beautiful Irene has been left destitute by the death of her father. Pushed by her stepmother, Irene reluctantly agrees to marry Soames on the condition that should their marriage not be a success, he will grant her her freedom. Soames agrees. A sorry start for a marriage that goes from bad to worse.

As the rest of the Forsyte clan - reduced to so much window dressing in this well-paced production - watches, the Soames-Irene mismatch stirs gossip. Lewis ("Band of Brothers") has captured Soames' wretched ambiguity as an essentially moral man whose overweening sense of ownership and rigid view of duty has rendered him unlovable. One doesn't know whether to feel sorry for him in the face of Irene's coldness, or condemn him for treating her like one of his prized paintings.

Soames decides to surprise Irene with the building of a grand country house, but the surprise is on him. Irene falls in love with its architect, Philip Bosinney (Ioan Gruffudd). Unfortunately, Bosinney, portrayed as a headstrong genius of uncontrollable passion by Gruffudd ("Horatio Hornblower"), is engaged to the grown-up June (Gillian Kearney), Irene's best friend and confidante.

McKee ("Notting Hill") brings brilliant nuance to the enigmatic Irene. Reduced to a dully dutiful wife, Irene initially resists Bosinney's ardent wooing. Pain and conflict flicker across her face as though she is facing the flames of hell.

Viewers are warned there is a rape scene in episode 3. While graphically discreet, the psychological violence is disturbing but pivotal to the tragic event that follows.

The many subplots also are given their due in stylish fashion. Redgrave is marvelous as the starchy but lovable Old Jolyon whose unForsytean capacity for change primes him for reconciliation with his son and the discovery of true love at the end of his life. Amanda Root as Winifred Dartie brings tragi-comic relief to the storyline of Soames' sister, who marries a bounder and pays dearly for it.

There's passion, intrigue and secrets for everyone. Serial classics don't come any better than this.

Betsy Kline can be reached at bkline@@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1408.

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