That Forsyte Woman is neither good nor bad, and in many ways it is terribly typical of its time. Were it not for the fact that the film is rarely shown today, I’d imagine we would hear people constantly putting it up as the quintessence of the old literary adaptations; it’s obscenely glossy, rife with omissions and at times apparent misinterpretation, embarrassingly lurid – in short, everything that everyone likes to loathe golden Hollywood for. Yet That Forsyte Woman is a compelling film, with an iron grip that one just can’t quite shake off. The film and the memory of it has positively hounded me these past few days, so I thought it might be interesting to delve into precisely why.
The screenplay, an adaptation of Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, is not exactly successful. Perhaps the best characteristic of these sprawling works of literature is arguably the only thing that cinema can never really offer: a story that slowly unfolds under the magnificent auspices of marching time. Thus, the screenplay can only hint at the underlying complexities of the many fascinating characters and the intricate world they live in. At the forefront, there is Soames Forsyte, the self proclaimed ‘man of property’ who will stop at nothing to acquire what he wants in life, including people. Irene Forsyte is the woman whom he relentlessly pursued and who has finally surrendered to an unhappy existence as his wife. Then there is Philip Bosinney and Jolyon Forsyte, two men who are also enthralled with Irene, the titular ‘Forsyte woman’. Needless to say, a whole lot of trouble ensues.
One of the best aspects of the film is unquestionably the performance of Errol Flynn in the role of Soames Forsyte. The character is very different from those typical cowboys and swashbucklers that the Warner crowd perpetually berated Flynn into, and at first the marked contrast is almost unnerving. Captain Blood and Robin Hood are convivial and fundamentally good men at heart, but one really cannot be so certain as to the nature of the borderline villainous Mr Forsyte. Yet Flynn renders Soames Forsyte with such care and sensitivity that we see past his many obvious flaws. Errol Flynn does not seek to merely play this literary character at face value, but seems to digs deep into his own psyche, searching out his own flaws and frustrations, and injecting them into Forsyte. The result is an vivid and perfectly intimate portrait of a man – a man who seems to have everything he could possibly desire, but in reality possess nothing but his own bitter disappointment at how he has lived his life.
However, it is not solely this brilliant portrayal that elevates That Forsyte Woman from its ostensible ordinariness. I think, in an odd way, it is exactly this ordinariness – the film’s steadfast devotion to the archetypal 40s/50s melodrama – which is That Forsyte Woman‘s most tremendous turn. By being so absolutely ‘Hollywood’, the movie unwittingly embodies all that is wrong in Soames Forsyte’s life. It is superficially exquisite and overtly elaborate, just as Soames’ life is filled to the brim with beautiful things, but things which obscure only the emptiness that he feels within. It is also blatantly false, like the never-ending appearances Soames must keep up throughout the film. Just look at the fairytale-ish scene pictured above; one need not be a conscientious cinephile to realise that it was filmed on an MGM lot – it certainly looks it.
Now either the director Compton Bennett had a secret Sirkian streak in him, or all these ironies are just quite coincidental. I don’t think it really matters; what is of importance is the fact that all these stylistic touches add a powerful layer to the movie, lending it a uniquely tragic aura. I said at the beginning that That Forsyte Woman is not very faithful at all to the original novels. This is almost beside the point though; a film need not follow the original piece exactly in order to be successful. I believe what really matters is for one artist to be faithful to another’s vision. In its own peculiar way, That Forsyte Woman does exactly that.