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Case Number 24157

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The Forsyte Saga Collection

Acorn Media // 2002 // 702 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 18th, 2012

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan wrote a period drama about a week ago Tuesday.

The Charge

The story of a family bitterly divided.

Opening Statement

It's always dangerous to try to adapt great or well-loved work to the screen. For instance, Shakespeare adaptations always run the risk of being overshadowed by the greatness of the play, leaving viewers wondering why they didn't just stay home and read it instead. It's even worse with novels that are well-liked (no matter how good they are). Fans are going to nitpick details and complain about any changes from page to screen. Again, no matter how good it is, it's often not good enough. The trick, at least based on The Forsyte Saga Collection, is to adapt great literature that many people have forgotten about. Though John Galsworthy, the author of the novels on which The Forsyte Saga is based, won a Nobel Prize in 1932, his novels (at least in America) are little known and probably read even less. I can't speak for the British experience, but even in his native land I suspect that Galsworthy is read less than many other British authors. However, adapting his work gives the series' creators all of the positives of borrowing from great literature—strong characters, an epic plot—with few of the downsides. However, there are some changes from the novels few will know or remember enough to care. Since this is the second time Galsworthy's novels have been brought to the screen the kinks have been ironed out, and this set will have strong appeal for fans of British drama of the period.

Facts of the Case

Based on the first three of the five books that Galsworthy wrote in his series, The Forsyte Saga is the story of the Forsyte family. Their adventures begin when Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis, Your Highness) meets Irene Heron (Gina McKee, Notting Hill) in Bournemouth and wants to marry her immediately. Eventually she acquiesces, and the pair begin a rocky relationship. As the story continues, we see two generations of the Forsyte family survive in a changing England. All ten episodes are presented across five discs.

The Evidence

There are two main reasons to dig into a miniseries adaptation of a classic novel. The first is the acting. Shows like this tend to attract high-quality actors (especially those with lots of experience but with little marquee value in the States). That means we usually get great performances and a new name to look out for in future projects. The Forsyte Saga is no different. The centerpiece of the show, especially for the first series, is the pairing of Mr. and Mrs. Forsyte. Damian Lewis is perfect at embody that particular brand of upper-crust gentleman who is used to having his way. It's not that he's a bad person, and Lewis doesn't play him that way. Rather, he's always had privilege and he doesn't know how lucky he is, so Lewis' lets his frustration at being disappointed or defied show through. Gina McKee takes the opposite tack: she's trapped by circumstances into marrying a man she's not totally convinced is the right one for her, and the pressures that mount on her come out as with more aloofness. Despite this apparent withdrawal, McKee keeps Irene sympathetic throughout. They're just two of the many performances that this set features, all of which are excellent.

The other reason that shows like this are popular is the level of period detail that the show can bring to viewers. Here The Forsyte Saga delivers again. The original 1967 TV adaptation of the novel was a big hit, so there was a healthy budget for this remake of the novels. That gives everyone involved the tools necessary to do the costumes and the setting justice. Though I didn't have the feeling of being transported to the turn of the twentieth century, I did appreciate all the period detail on display. More importantly (at least for me, who watches these kind of shows rarely), the show had the budget to look like a film. I've got nothing against older period dramas, but due to budget constraints a lot of them had to shoot with limited sets and lots of closeups, which shows their age. The Forsyte Saga, in contrast, has the budget to get the camera moving and show more stuff happening.

I have no reason to think these aren't exactly the same DVDs of the show that have been released before as single series sets. The only real addition is a nice cardboard slipcover that houses the two DVD cases containing the five discs. Regardless of their previous release, the show looks good here. The transfers are generally clean and bright, with a slightly soft look that is likely intentional. Contrast and detail could be a bit better, but overall these transfers look good. The stereo audio does a fine job handling dialogue, which is well-balanced with the show's score. The set's main extra is a 20-minute making-of feature that covers the show's production. We also get some photo galleries, a biography of Galsworthy, and some biographies and filmographies. It's not a lot, but it's more than many series of this type get.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

For some, this will be yet another stuffy British drama about wealth and class that American can't relate to. If that kind of drama doesn't appeal to you, then The Forsyte Saga is not for you. Also, these shows have been on DVD for quite some time now, and packaging them together with nothing new seems like a kind of "eh" move. I suspect that the producers are hoping for a little bit of Downton Abbey withdrawal to entice buyers into picking up the complete run of another drama set in a similar period. Whether that's true or not, simply repackaging ten-year-old DVDs with no new extras is unlikely to win new fans.

Closing Statement

The Forsyte Saga is a solid adaptation of a lesser-known bit of British literature. Sporting a solid cast and high production values, the show is likely to appeal to fans of Masterpiece-style drama. Those who already own the previous DVD sets have no reason to upgrade, though this is a great way to experience the show for the first time.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 94
Audio: 91
Extras: 80
Acting: 90
Story: 80
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
• English (CC)
Running Time: 702 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Foreign
• Romance
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurette
• Photo Gallery
• Booklist
• Filmographies


• IMDb

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