Strange to talk about a series that happened over 10 years ago, but discussing Damian Lewis’ oeuvre without touching on Soames Forsyte and the Forsyte Saga would just be incomplete. Gentle Means, the lovely fanfic we recently published from our talented guest blogger, Mel, got this character back front and center in my mind.
Imagine if you will, a 30 year old actor just returned from completing his first “Hollywood” venture, the most expensive series ever produced and shown on HBO, Band of Brothers. It was a hit! Everyone wants him! Everyone wants him to come back over the pond and play….another soldier. Word has it, that Damian was offered a role in Blackhawk Down and turned it down to stay in England and play Soames Forsyte. One may speculate he told the casting folks that he can’t do it but his good friend and fellow Eton-ite Ewan MacGregor might be free. 🙂 Of course, Blackhawk Down was a great film, but, boy, we’re glad Damian said no.
A lot of actors may enjoy the stability and job security of being pigeon-holed, on speed dial for reliably and predictably playing the same character over and over again. Not Damian Lewis. Even when there have been common themes in the works he’s chosen, his approach to each role he’s taken has been custom-tailored….or, bespoke, as the British would say. 🙂
If, like me, when you first saw Brody’s face, and wondered why the actor looked sort of familiar and couldn’t quite place it: well, you may have seen that face before as Soames flashing by in the credits for PBS Masterpiece Theater.
And a masterpiece, Soames Forsyte was.
Forsyte Saga is a story spanning multiple generations of a “new money” family in London. The novel as first produced for television in 1967 pre-dated and introduced the tradition of epic multi-peopled multi-storied generational drama we now enjoy on both sides of the Atlantic. The production in which Damian played the central character Soames Forsyte was shown in 2002 – 03, and it’s not an exaggeration to say the story and all performances in it embody the very best we could (and should) aim for in any long-running serial drama. We see a sometimes sentimental but always poignant view of old family rivalries, sins of the fathers visited on sons and daughters, the spinning webs of secrets and lies that inform all good soap opera, but told concisely and rigorously towards a satisfying conclusion.
If one tagline could sum up the series I think it’d be “What we do for money; what we do for love”. As a newly moneyed upper middle-class family, the Forsytes are never without a comment or two or entire relationships built around money. They talk money freely, everything is about money, what to pay out to whom and for what. And that becomes the hallmark by which we can identify them as newly rich. Neither the established upper classes nor the poor talk about money as freely and obsessively as the newly rich.
Soames Forsyte, as the “Man of Property” namesake of the first novel of the series, believes everything is for sale and everything is available for purchase.
He believes in duty to family and to tradition and resists change at all costs. Despite this rigid attachment to doing what is expected of him, he is swept away madly in devotion for a woman who has nothing of her own and absolutely nothing to offer him. On top of that, this woman, Irene, doesn’t love him, not even a little. Soames thinks he can make up for these shortcomings by, first, buying as much of her affection as he can with dresses and paintings and a hand-crafted house in the country, and second, with the expectation that she’s as willing to adhere to duty as he is.
Truth is, Soames is an unequivocally unlikeable caricature of a materialist without an ounce of imagination. His goal is ownership, period. Soames’ mother shares a story of when he was a boy: He was given a kitten, and he pet it and fed it and loved it so much that he killed it. His brand of love has always been a maniacal possessive love. Having only read a bit of the book, I don’t know if Galsworthy’s original vision for the character was sympathetic or not. Saw a bit of the 1967 Soames and couldn’t really tell there either, whether we were supposed to be on his side in the story. With Damian Lewis in the role, however, it’s quite clear. Soames is generally a reprehensible ogre of a person, who, as played by Damian, we beguilingly wind up sympathizing with.
Look: The guys rapes his wife, not a rape-as-seduction we used to see sometimes on soaps: it’s all out, bruised arms, scratched faces, head slammed against the wall, screaming mouth forceably shut, rape. Yet, every time he growls at Irene “Are you made of stone? Have you no heart?”, instead of feeling her fear or disgust or whatever else she says she feels or doesn’t feel about him, all we see is his pain and passion and frustration that all his passion has gone wasted. And every time Soames bellows “I only want what is MINE!” instead of seeing him as a spoiled bully accustomed to always getting his way, we see Irene and her sorry little architect lover as the biggest petulant children and bullies in the story. Despite Soames’ hunched over posture, rigid arms plastered to his side, fists balled up, despite his supercilious eyebrow raises coupled with increasingly twisted snarls as the story progresses, we also see his heart. We see what he yearns for and never has the skills to express. We see his heart and we see it breaking, and, miraculously, we’re on his side. How the heck does that happen?
Well, the character is played by Damian Lewis that’s how. With Damian in the role, we get a powder keg performance of a man in perpetual war with himself, a man lacking the language to give a name to what he’s feeling or to ever admit any of his own shortcomings (until the very end). Again, Damian shows instead of tells. And shows in a way that we don’t even know what he’s doing until we’re totally taken in by the performance. We see Soames’ heart breaking over and over again. Until, at the end, he’s resigned and eventually reaches some sort of peace.
Now, for some compelling scenes.
At one point, the family gathers around old James Forsyte, Soames’ father, on his death bed. A beautiful scene you see too rarely on a screen that only wants to show you happy unencumbered-by-reality life. The father is dying, the mother is holding his arm and weeping, the daughter is holding his hand and weeping, and Soames? He grabs hold of his father’s bare exposed foot and starts massaging it, easing his beloved father into death. A remarkably poignant picture of family and loss and tradition and duty and death.
Soames wants a family of his own, very badly. His father, as anyone insecure about his status, wants the Forsyte name to go on, he wants Soames to have a son. As the next generation further removed from humble beginnings with an eye towards higher status, Soames wants the same thing. He wants a son. But, when the time comes for him to have his one and only child, it’s a girl. Soames is obviously disappointed at first. But, just look at what happens when he sees his daughter for the first time. He’s finally met the one true love of his life, his Fleur.
This is the kind of performance where everyone else in the scene he’s in is left shell-shocked. It has to be choices that Damian made that weren’t in the script because it’s so clear how others in the scene are left stunned by him. One scene in particular: Soames’ daughter from his second marriage has fallen in love with Irene’s son from her second marriage, everyone has told the kids they’re making an unwise choice, but Soames’ daughter isn’t budging and he loves her more than he’s ever loved anyone and he can’t see her unhappy. So Soames goes to Irene to get her opinion on what to do about their darn kids. It doesn’t go well. In her hippie-dippie fashion, she says the choice lays with her son, which is sort of what Soames is willing to concede for his daughter as well. Nonetheless, there’s an explosion of emotion.
Soames bellows: “They might have been brother and sister, for heaven’s sake…all this might have been saved if only you’d done your DUTY to me, been a wife to me…that’s all I wanted, all I EVER WANTED”. He shouts in her face towering over her, face bulging. And then it looks like he’s about to forceably smear her contrite and perfect face with a kiss. Irene’s son walks in and orders Soames to leave his mother alone. Soames stops, but then for a second he continues to approach Irene. She visibly smarts in surprise and turns her entire body away. I cannot help but think, that little extra movement, that little extra push of violence, was all Damian Lewis, pushing the role, pushing himself, and pushing everyone else in the scene with him.
Yes, Irene and Jolyon (her husband and Soames cousin) are free thinkers, early adopters of the turn of the century post-WWI politics of eschewing tradition and thinking and living for oneself. Under any conventional circumstances they’d be the progressive heroes of the drama, forward thinking liberals driven only by the pursuit of love. To love and be loved is at the core of Irene’s character description, all characters gravitating towards her alabaster-skinned raven-haired beauty as if she is Aphrodite herself reborn to usher them to the promised land of liberalism, no death, no wars: a world awash in art nouveaux perfection. Yet, with Damian Lewis in the picture playing the stodgy adherent to the old ways, we find ourselves sympathizing with Soames, despite how liberal we imagine ourselves to be. It’s not that Damian is not playing the part as written. The fact is that he’s adding the nuanced layer the part needs to feel human.