Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Soap Opera Redemption

The Forsyte Saga, Series Two, Starring Damian Lewis, Rupert Graves, Gina McKee, Emma Griffiths Malin, & Lee Williams, Directed by Andy Wilson, Granada Television, 2003

While a stripped down makeup department from Series One returns to this four episode continuation, comprising the final of three Forsyte novels by John Galsworthy, this time they managed better work. In the first series, there was this magical quality that prevented any of the adult characters from ever seemingly aging in any respect. This time around, as the series moves twenty years forward into the Jazz Age, Soames and Jolyon Forsyte actually show signs of age. Hardly enough, and Irene remains virtually untouched, but still better.

In so many ways, this second adaptation pales before the first, filling in blanks Galsworthy’s novel didn’t, adding additional human elements to Soames, and including a final scene made up of whole cloth for a feel-good ending to what is admittedly a downer of a three novel epic. While there is a slight basis for this final scene in the text, what the screenwriters have done with it is nothing less than a perversion of the original author’s intent for the characters.

While I’m generally not above giving a film a bit of leeway in adaptation, there has to be a semblance of hewing to the original lest you end up making some other film entirely. Not that this is particularly an unfaithful adaptation, just that there was less to work with in this last instance, it seems, and there were hours to fill. This adaptation does do a nice bit of comparison with the first in terms of shifting mores of the time. Public passions were hardly indulged, behavior was much more decorous and restrained, while in this post-war milieu Fleur bats about after Jon Forsyte (Irene and Jolyon’s son) with the mad abandon of the Lost Generation.

There are some wonderfully done elements to this part of the story. The two principals, Fleur (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Jon (Lee Williams) are both physically beautiful specimens without falling prey to American television notions of attractiveness. Their youthful, star-crossed romance is heedless, reckless, and ultimately painful to everyone around them for all the reasons so clear in Series One. Fleur is presented as young, spoiled, and susceptible to whatever diversion comes her way, so her end of the romance seems less pained when things go awry, while for Jon there is a touch of the wounded poet to his agonizing.

The parents involved in this five-person relationship are suitably upset by its development, though Irene (about whom much of the back and forth still swirls) is perhaps the most composed and philosophical about the matter. If there were textbook examples of the worst way to discourage a budding infatuation, each father neatly manages one trick or the other. Keeping secrets that give the childrens’ dalliance piquancy? Check. Letting drop enough hints to entice further while trying to distract? Check. Sternly forbidding the association? Double check.

If there is a worse of the two fathers, it is again, as always in Soames. Demanding and commanding in his family, as a father he is so wrapped up in the one person to show him real affection that he can deny his daughter nothing. As much as he tries to deliver sermons from on high about how Fleur must behave, her coquettishness wins over every man in the room, her father the most of all.

The three actors playing the parents, Soames (Damian Lewis), Jolyon (Rupert Graves) and Irene (Gina McKee) are as good as they were in the first series. While the latter two eat up far less screen time than Soames, their story is the more wrenching as we watch the toll the young lovers’ trysts have on Jolyon. Aged and with high blood pressure and a ticker on its last legs, Jolyon visibly fades before our eyes. While these three are made up to show more signs of age, including wrinkles around the eyes and forehead and liver spots all over their hands, the real treat is in the acting of age. Irene’s is the least obvious, having the least screen time, while Jolyon’s shuffling gate and old-man-easing-himself down into chairs is touchingly vulnerable. Soames, still as stiff as a poker, moves with a more cautious gait, his body old but his firmness of purpose unaffected.

Yet, for all these strong actors, the film is still less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the worst offense comes in the film’s depiction of the wedding of Fleur near the very, very end. We are given the full treatment of dress and church and a lengthy scene between father and daughter preceding the ceremony, none of which is in the novel. Whereas in Galsworthy’s text we do get Fleur’s wedding, the focus is off of the bride and groom, as it should be, and on to a kind of running commentary among the Darties. As Fleur’s choice of husband has more of social acceptance than her heart’s, the marriage seems more about fitting in than feeling.

This is precisely reversed in the film, to the point even of Fleur’s bad temper toward her father lasting until their clash right before the ceremony. In this complete fiction, Soames finally confesses to his rape of Irene all those years ago, agonizing and weeping almost as he recalls his behavior. In some ways, this scene could have been pulled off and kept in line with Galsworthy’s characterization, but the screenwriters either weren’t up to it or chose a different route. To Damian Lewis’ credit, he brings it off to the degree that even my wife teared up at his revelation — then later commented to me how strange it was to cry at his confession of rape.

Yet, it’s precisely this level of self-awareness and self-loathing and — most importantly — self-critique that Soames is perfectly incapable of feeling. This eleventh hour emotional outburst is more about rehabilitating our sympathies for Soames as a character than it is about true writing. It is as if the screenwriters felt uncomfortable in how Galsworthy makes them empathize with such a monster and decided to redraw the portrait themselves. Thus, in their hands we are given Soames, a decent enough guy who just made a mistake long, long ago and how he has suffered ever since. This inverts Galsworthy’s formulation of a monster, yes, constructed of much personal suffering and at great psychic cost to himself, yet a monster nevertheless. But, and here’s the trick, a human monster, thus one not incapable of having elements to him that are admirable, wise, witty, honest, and charismatic. Galsworthy lets us know that this is a deeply flawed, quite vicious man — and he makes us kinda sorta like him anyway. This televised version washes away those flaws to a great degree and instead of humanizing Soames, as must have been their intention, they reduce him to a kind of cliché.

It is to Damian Lewis’ great, great talent as an actor that he apparently recognizes this fine distinction and keeps his portrayal far more in tune with the novelist’s. In the final scene of the series, the hurried distress almost with which he peels off his glove to shake Irene’s hand, to touch what once was his, for one last final time, is a consummate scene of emotion, as close as Soames can bring himself. Lewis hits this beautifully, even if he is required to give us the real inklings of a smile in the last shot, somewhat undercutting the final words of Galsworthy’s novel.

Still, for all its lack of faithfulness, The Forsyte Saga Series Two is a workmanlike enough continuation of the first to the degree that it doesn’t completely squander the goodwill built up in that superior attempt. Considerably less literary than its predecessor, much more concerned with the more soap opera elements of the doomed love story, where it fails in its inattention to the passing of an age and the change in society, changes and differences reflective in the characters and their situations. Yet, our interest in these characters remains strong and the series moves effortlessly through its four rounds, over sooner than you’d think, over all too soon, perhaps.

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