The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Forsyte Changes

So, after viewing the entire 1967 adaptation, I decided to re-engage with the 2002-2003 adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, the first season of which I had not liked when I first saw it. Upon re-viewing, the reasons for my half-remembered distaste became clear: The series tilts the balance of the equities stiffly against Soames, who begins as an obsessive and degenerates over the first season to a Quilp-like grotesque. Seriously, Damian Lewis plays the part of the older Soames with a sneering, jerky mien, mouth twisted into a snarl, voice constricted. His virtues do not evolve as in Galsworthy's novels--his art collection is solely about possession. In the early episodes, he is given a non-Galsworthian role as a trustee for Young Jolyon which enables Soames to smugly and moralistically deny his cousin the opportunity to buy even a modest home. Soames keeps Young Jolyon in poverty, off-loading some of the blame from Old Jolyon. (Soames likewise, in this version, keeps Winifred and her rakish, gambling husband poor, thus off-loading some responsibility for that marriage's failure onto Soames--the default position of this adaptation.)

Irene, by contrast, is considerably warmed up from Galsworthy's remote, rather abstract heroine whose thoughts and should we are never afforded access to. Gina McKee is given far more to work with than was her predecessor, Nyree Dawn Porter, who played pretty much Galsworthy's Irene; McKee does a smashing job (as does Lewis, by the way), but she's playing a very different woman.

In the second season, The Forsyte Saga: To Let, this continues for much of the run. Monty Dartie, the extremely unsatisfactory husband to Winifred, is sentimentalized further, being allowed a magnificent last run of luck, in which he wins enough money to leave Winifred an income after he is killed in accident due to a panicky horse in a car in which he is not even driving. His last words are about wanting to take Winifred away--a far cry from Galsworthy's unredeemed, but not entirely lacking in charm, sot, who dies under mysterious circumstances, in Paris, "which no one had quite known what to make of, except that it was certainly not suicide."

Soames goes down to plead for Fleur as in the novel, but (unlike in the novel), corners Irene, and almost begins making advances on her again. It's a betrayal of Soames's one virtue: his unselfish love of Fleur, and leads to Jon slamming him up against the wall, seeing his mother physically menaced by the man who raped her (albeit with social and legal sanction). At a stroke, all of Soames's slow, and hesitant growth in the novels, is denied, and he remains a caricature, despite Lewis's best work. Likewise, Fleur's subsequent one cruel explosion at Soames becomes an extended estrangement. She is cruel to him because, as Soames's wife Annette observes, she can be.

Yet the second series complicates the moral absolutes of the first series. Early on, when Jolyon confronts Soames about the inappropriateness of Fleur and Jon coming together, Lewis has a field day stripping the hypocrisy of Graves's exponent of free love (when it suited him) falling back on the exact possessiveness that Jolyon had despised in Soames. Graves plays Jolyon as stricken by this accusation against which he cannot defend himself. Soames wins that round, fairly.

And Soames's relationship with Annette has some complexity, too. After her lover Profond ditches her, he hesitantly, shyly, offers comfort, which she recognizes and is grateful for. She runs back to Profond later, but when Soames, desperate for the well-being of the daughter who has rejected him, calls for her help, she returns, and helps not just Fleur but Soames as well. He pays Annette a simple, shy tribute, thanking her with patent sincerity.

Jon and Irene are cruel, too--she plays piano to drown out Fleur's despairing cries at having been rejected by the man who abandoned her minutes after taking her virginity; Jon no longer fully loves her (thanks to the doubt his mother has sown) but does not want her to marry someone else--he is possessive in the most Forystean way. Soames wanted Irene, but wanted her to be happy with him; Jon wants Fleur to suffer with him, without alleviating her suffering.

And then the series does something even more startling in its last hour. Soames, still receiving the cold shoulder from Fleur as they get ready to depart for her wedding to Michael Mont, finally snaps. He tells her that "It's far better to be with someone who loves you more than you love them. There's nothing worse than always trying to please someone; hoping they'll look at you, smile at you…" And then, in his concern for her, speaks the hitherto unspeakable truth:
Fleur Forsyte:I don't want to hear about her!
Soames Forsyte: I'll tell you anyway, shall I? The great sin your father committed? Then you can write me off altogether.
Fleur Forsyte: I said, I don't want to hear!
Soames Forsyte: I married her because I loved her! Very simple. It's why Michael's marrying you. She abused my trust; she denied me my rights as a husband. She ignored me. She flaunted her lover in my face. She locked me out of her life, her body...
Fleur Forsyte: Please!
Soames Forsyte: One night, her door was open, and she was lying there, looking very beautiful. She is very beautiful, don't you think? I whispered her name, but she was asleep.
Fleur Forsyte: Stop!
Soames Forsyte: I must have been mad. I think I was; Mad for her. So I took her, forcibly... as punishment! And now when I see her, whenever she looks at me, I know she's thinking only of that.
[breaks down in tears]
At this point, Fleur empathizes with her father's years of agony, and cannot withhold forgiveness; she knows only too well what he has felt, and what drove him t uncharacteristic behavior.

But the story is not yet over. Father and daughter reconciled, Fleur off on her honeymoon, Soames is tasked by her with destroying a copy of a Degas painting that looks like her. (In Galsworthy, the painting is a Goya, but Emma Griffiths Malin really isn't a Goya type, I guess--although in the novels, this painting is the one that topples toward Fleur, leading the 72 year old Soames to push her out of the way, and be fatally injured by it--so the adaptation goes decidedly AU here.)

Rather than destroying or discarding or selling it, he takes one last trip to Robin Hill. Irene answers the door, expecting a potential buyer or renter for the house. Soames offers Irene the painting, as a gift for Jon, and she asks him in. They speak a little bit. Irene, who is appalled at what has befallen their respective children due to the older generation's possessiveness, asks if they had really hurt their children. Soames, unwilling to betray Fleur's broken heart, asserts quietly that Fleur is happily married, and that grandchildren are expected. Irene smiles, understanding his loyalty and finding his reserve a little comic under the circumstances. Soames, leaving the painting, says goodbye--"I don't expect we shall ever meet again," he says, with which she agrees, and he then says that he will leave her to her packing.

Soames is almost out of the door, when Irene calls his name. She offers her hand--having rejected hers at their last meeting, before his old obsessiveness flared up--and he, awkwardly, humbly removes his glove, as a gentleman should, and takes her hand for a moment. The moment ends, and Soames leaves. Parfitt, Irene's butler comes in and asks what the caller had wanted. Irene smiles, a little wonderstruck. "He didn't want anything," she says, a bit amazed.

We join Soames, as he walks away from Robin Hill. His sneer is gone, his taut face relaxed; he looks normal, healed. Irene and Soames have communicated--his compassion for her son, who has lost his own love, and evoked Soames's inarticulate, preposterous offer of the painting as a comfort to Jon, has in turn evoked her forgiveness. The Man of Property's spontaneous act of unselfishness, however clumsy, has freed Irene to forgive him, and give him silent absolution.

They are, at long last, at peace.


It isn't Galsworthy's ending--in fact, Soames's having unloaded the picture that later is supposed to kill him rather negates Galsworthy's ending--but there's something to it. It has a form, and a kind of fittingness of its own. That's the thing with adaptations; once you start playing with them, there's no knowing where they will lead you--here, far from the original, and yet to a stopping point that honors the characters as they have come to life in the hands of new writers, new actors. Not Galsworthy's, but with a new perspective and life of their own.


Anonymous said...

Yes very good. I feel you've caught it: despite some flaws, and especially here its brevity, the new series offers a new and differing kind of complexity more up to date than 1967. We lose out in depth of representation because we are given so much less but what is there is thoughtful and some of the performances just as good or enrich the text differently. Ellen

Anglocat said...

Thanks, Ellen--I tried to be fair, and point out what it does well, and that, if you're willing to go with it, it has virtues of its own different from those of the original.