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TV Review: 'The Forsyte Saga' marches on

Sunday, February 08, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When it comes to period costume dramas, you're either a fan or you're not. I usually like them because these British imports tend to be serialized, and shows with continuing stories always interest me more than programs with stand-alone episodes.

"The Forsyte Saga: Series II"

When: 9 tonight, Feb. 15 and Feb. 22 on WQED.
Starring: Damian Lewis, Gina McKee.

I don't have time to watch them all -- and truth be told, they do sometimes seem an awful lot alike -- but I thoroughly enjoyed last year's masterful "Masterpiece Theatre" production, "The Forsyte Saga," the remake of a PBS classic.

It was actually a partial remake, based on the first two books in author John Galsworthy's series. The new "Saga" was an excellent production because of the writing, the look, everything about it. Still, all that could have been wasted without just the right cast. This was an instance of impeccable casting, particularly the two leads, British actors Damian Lewis and Gina McKee.

Lewis is quickly proving himself to be one of the finest young actors of his generation. He was at the center of HBO's "Band of Brothers" as Maj. Winters, and he's the tightly wound, emotionally constricted center of "The Forsyte Saga," Soames Forsyte, a possessive man who loves more than he is loved. That was particularly true of his marriage to Irene (McKee), who broke free of his oppressive control after he raped her in last year's "Forsyte Saga: Series I."

The sequel, based on Galsworthy's "To Let," airs tonight and the following two Sundays (two hours tonight, one hour next week, two hours on Feb. 22). Soames and Irene continue to play pivotal roles, albeit more from the wings. Their children take center stage as Irene's son Jon (Lee Williams, "Billy Elliot") falls in love with Soames' daughter, Fleur (Emma Griffiths Malin, "The Cazalets").

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree in either case. Jon is passionate and creative. Fleur is conniving and determined to get what she wants.

"I'm not your daughter for nothing. If I want something, I usually get it," she tells Soames, who indulges her petulance. That proves more difficult than she expects. She ignores some advice from Soames, who long failed to heed the same recommendation himself.

"It's far better to be with someone who loves you more than you love them," Soames says. "There's nothing worse than always trying to please someone, always hoping they'll look at you, smile at you."

Both parents object to the Jon-Fleur relationship, which dates back to their childhoods, when Soames threw a fit after the two were caught playing together in a garden.

"He's the result of a filthy liaison," Soames says in front of young Jon. "Illegitimate in all but name. He's a dirty, savage little ..."

Jon is the son of Irene and Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves), Soames' cousin. Soames hates Irene, and Irene loathes Soames. Jolyon isn't happy either, although Soames rightfully points out Jolyon acts hypocritically while Soames remains true to his nature.

Actress Gina McKee, in Hollywood last month to promote "The Forsyte Saga," said the Irene of the second miniseries is much different from the Irene viewers saw in series one.

"The Irene you see in 'To Let' is a much happier person, and with that happiness she's got a confidence and maturity that is enjoyable because she had so much conflict bottled up and internalized," McKee said. "Her relationship with Young Jolyon is an antidote to the relationship with Soames. She is loved as opposed to being possessed."

"The Forsyte Saga" will likely conclude with this installment, and McKee said she's done with the character even if a third chapter is filmed. She's played Irene from 19 in the first miniseries to 55 in this one.

"Beyond that -- I'm 39 now -- I just think it's a bit stupid," McKee said. "It's kind of implausible. ... There comes a point where makeup and acting can only take it so far."

"Masterpiece Theatre" executive producer Rebecca Eaton said there had been some discussion of a third miniseries, but that Lewis, too, felt he'd taken the Soames characters as far as he'd care to go.

This installment of "The Forsyte Saga" ends on a high note. It's not entirely happy, but there's a sense of closure and contentedness for some of the characters, particularly Soames, who is both loathsome and pitiful. It's a tribute to the story, writing and Lewis' performance that Soames is more multidimensional than he so easily could have been.


TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.

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