Boy howdy. When Galsworthy calls something a saga, he is not funning. I know this, because the miniseries takes many, many hours, and also because I read the immense book. It tells the story of a rich London family of solicitors (unsurprisingly, the Forsytes) from the late Victorian era through the early 1920s.

Broadly, there are three intertwining strands of this story. Strand 1 concerns Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis), solicitor and control freak. Strand 2 is composed of his uncle, Old Jolyon Forsyte (Corin Redgrave), and his cousin, Young Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves, in perhaps the only sympathetic part he has played since he hit 30), who are less conventional–Young Jolyon paints and leaves his wife and small daughter June (eventually Gillian Kearney) for the French governess. Strand 3 belongs to Irene Heron (Gina McKee), a very beautiful and serene and impoverished but also shockingly destructive woman, whom Soames marries. The marriage emphatically does not work out, and the circumstances of their separation drive forward the remainder of the main plot, which works itself out (very eventually) in the lives of their children from second marriages.

Galsworthy was careful to flesh out the Forsytes with both particular and family idiosyncrasies, and the series admirably follows his lead: Winifred (Amanda Root), Soames’s sister, impetuously marries the penniless but charming Montague Dartie (Ben Miles, in a really great part for him); their son Val (Julian Ovenden, very young and dashing) is an interesting study in the son who is always vaguely and sometimes acutely embarrassed by his father (their daughter Imogen is a non-entity); George Forsyte (Alistair Petrie), everybody’s cousin, is engagingly detached but somewhat spiderlike in the enjoyment he takes from observing everybody’s insecurities; Philip Bosinney (Ioan Gruffudd), an architect and June’s fiancé, wreaks truly astounding havoc, for entirely plausible reasons; a dozen others round out the splendid tableau.

Perhaps because most of the actions taken are those that human beings might take, it’s sometimes (though very much not always) hard to take sides. One is never bored. Everyone is well-cast, and, while some of the younger actors sometimes seem a bit tedious and melodramatic, that might really be how they’re supposed be.

The production is gorgeous throughout, in interiors particularly, and most especially with the house that Soames has built, designed by Bosinney. It is a triumph of Arts and Crafts: light, airy, and eminently livable. But the real visual interest of the series is in the clothes. We begin in frock coats and huge skirts, meander through bustles and Edwardian suits, and end in drapey post-war dresses with ankle-skimming hems. Irene wears the most beautiful red dress; all the artistic men wear colored shirts with soft neckties. Soames’s daughter gets him into a blazer, boater, and flannels! It is glorious.

Stray observations:

  • I lied: the real visual interest is the amazing proliferation of good-looking dudes. It’s a pity that Christian Coulson isn’t around for longer.
  • This has to be the only thing written in Britain in the first half of the 20th century that hardly deals with the Great War. No Forsyte serves (all too young or too old), though two went out as soldiers and two as nurses to South Africa in the Boer War. We do encounter a Belgian arms dealer and one young ex-officer.

Directors: Christopher Menaul, David Moore, Andy Wilson
Rating: TV, but PG-13ish
Length: 700 minutes
Score: 5/5

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