A fuss about ‘The Forsyte Saga’

If I had seen “The Forsyte Saga” before I met Damian Lewis a few weeks ago, I might have followed him round the party all night. I would have asked him how he got so good at playing bad, or as the New York Times put it, “another repressed villain demented by love and loss.”

The British-born actor is better known in the U.S., of course, for his role as Sergeant Nicholas Brody on Showtime's “Homeland,” for which he recently won an Emmy. But his performance in “The Forsyte Saga” is also deserving of the highest praise (I suspect it helped him snag the “Homeland” role). He is one of those chameleon actors, all method, method, method, bringing complexity and complication to his characters. Best of all, he is unafraid of being vile. As Soames Forstye, a maniacally oppressive aristocrat who is driven mad by love, Lewis makes him impossible to like but easy to pity.

Without getting into details of the 10-hour miniseries, here's a snapshot from The Times, which published a review of the series the day Lewis won his “Homeland” Emmy, noting its U.S. release was timed to capitalize on Lewis's newfound fame:

His Soames Forsyte — like Brody, his character on “Homeland” — is driven by a cause he believes is just and evokes sympathy for his torment if not his misguided actions. An uptight man of property, Soames grimaces his way through an evolving London as if enduring a nasty toothache. Gina McKee was Irene (pronounced eye-REE-nee), a chilly swan-necked beauty who marries Soames for his money but openly despises him, driving him to despicable behavior.

Meanwhile the rest of the sprawling Forsyte clan — like the one on “Downton Abbey” — wallows in rivalries, resentments and opulent houses, struggling to adapt as the sun sets on the British Empire.

All this fuss about “Downtown Abbey” (which I like) and “Upstairs Downstairs” (which I haven't seen) is almost charming when “The Forsyte Saga” is blazing hot drama. Based on a series of early 20th century and semi-autobipgraphical novels by John Galsworthy, “Forsyte” follows the travails of one upper-class British family over several decades, with the requisite births, deaths, scandals, illnesses, war and romance in between. Plus there is art and opera along this absorbing and authentic journey which takes a very sophisticated view of how relationships evolve over time. It is simply one of the most compelling pieces of television I've seen and I don't usually gush like this!

What struck me most about this story was how profoundly it captured the journey of a human soul. Characters grow in this story. They evolve. They start as one thing and while they don't exactly transform, they get better. They face their demons. Relationships begin and fail, then, deepen and change. Love doesn't always last. Loneliness soaks up years. The disreputable are powerful. The good suffer. Pretty appearances sometimes belie the torments that linger underneath. Hearts are hardened. Duty prevails. Love is rarely smooth but knotty, hard-won and dangerous. But in the end, it is the most enduring of human emotions.

Anyway I liked it. It was just like life. Well, my life anyway.