Okay, okay. So granted, Damian Lewis was a perfectly fine Soames Forsyte in 2002’s The Forsyte Saga miniseries – better than fine, actually, though I’ve heard Eric Porter was also good in the 1967 extended adaptation (26 episodes!) of John Galsworthy’s series of novels, first published between 1906 and 1921. Errol Flynn even played the role in a 1949 movie version oddly titled “That Forsyte Woman“, but the results were… unfortunate, so the less said about that one, the better. I haven’t seen the 1967 version, so I’m just going to confine myself to the more recent one. So, who’s Soames Forsyte and what does he have to do with Patrick Malahide?
Well, nothing, except that I think Malahide would have done an excellent job with the role and I would have loved to see what he could have done with it – so this is a Wished For Role. Soames is the scion of one branch of the Forsytes, a large Victorian family that feels so close to its working class origins that its members uneasily consider themselves nouveau riche even though they’ve had a comfortable amount of wealth for a few generations. Soames himself is a solicitor and partner in the family law firm. He’s acutely aware of the image he needs to present to society, and one of his ambitions is to make himself a “man of property”, so that he can be said to have arrived. He’s a very driven personality and not (at first – some might say never) a warm one.
The “Man of Property”
Soames is interested in acquiring things, and these include art (which he enjoys more for the value it might accrue rather than for its own sake), a proper sort of house, and a wife… who in due time will be expected to provide him with an heir – a male heir, of course. Chance throws Irene Heron (played by Gina McKee in the 2002 series) his way. She’s an impoverished young woman whose father has just died, leaving her and her stepmother with insufficient funds to survive, and she’s very different from other women Soames has known. She’s sensitive, plays the piano, has an appreciation for art that Soames lacks, is very beautiful, and wittily talks back to him, so of course he’s smitten, just about at first sight. Soames ardently pursues her and she’s initially flattered by his attentions. He soon makes her an offer she can’t refuse and even though she already has trepidations about accepting his marriage proposal, she’s pretty much pushed into it by both her financial state and her stepmother, who sees Soames as an incredible catch (and by Victorian standards, he is). She insists on an “out” clause if the marriage “isn’t a success” and Soames is so eager to marry her that he readily agrees, even though we already suspect he has no intentions of honouring it.
A Victorian Marriage
To no one’s surprise except Soames’, the marriage is not a happy one. Soames treats Irene as yet another possession to decorate his home and is disappointed when she seems to feel no affection for him (spoiler: she loathes him); his expectations of a loving marriage fall rather flat. While he can and does feel things deeply, and actually loves Irene and has a need to be loved, it’s all buried so deep within his psyche that we suspect he has no idea how to express his emotions, even if he wanted to. Her indifference makes him try to grasp her all the more tightly, and the result is an extremely destructive and possessive love with an insistence on Irene’s “proper behaviour” as a Forsyte and fulfillment of her “wifely duties”, to the extent of forcing the latter. All of this ends up driving Irene into the arms of brilliant young architect Philip Bosinney, who’s played by Ioan Gruffudd in the 2002 series but might be better played by Rufus Sewell to Malahide’s Soames (sorry, that’s a “Middlemarch” joke 😉 ). He’s warm, kind, artistic, and personable – everything Soames is not.
Not to go too far into spoiling the plot, but things turn out badly with Bosinney (not Irene’s fault… sorta kinda), and as predicted, Soames reneges on the “out” clause when she asks him for a divorce. Irene eventually turns to Soames’ cousin Young Jolyon (played by Rupert Graves – not to be confused with his father, Old Jolyon, or Young Jolyon’s son, also Jolyon but called “Jolly” – very confusing), who is also a Bohemian artistic type, for the warmth and solace she’ll never get from her husband. Soames stubbornly and persistently refuses to give Irene up at first, considering divorce a moral and social disgrace as well as a highly visible failure; by this time his love has become an all-consuming obsession. He confronts both Irene and Young Jolyon (and Lewis’ implosions of temper are marvelous to behold) but he can’t convince Irene to come back to him or persuade Jolyon to give her up. His hand is eventually forced when Irene and Young Jolyon admit to an adultery they haven’t actually committed (yet), and he divorces Irene.
After the divorce, Soames’ obsession gradually begins to wane and he does eventually find a sort of happiness. He meets and marries Annette Lamotte (Beatriz Batarda), a French restaurant owner, but their relationship is on far more of a business arrangement / mutual benefit basis. Love and passion do not come into it and both parties know it. However, it’s through marriage to Annette that Soames finally gets the chance to attain the love he’s always wanted when Annette gives birth to a daughter, Fleur. She’s not the son Soames wanted (and expected), but he ends up becoming a little more human by loving her anyway, and ends up absolutely wrapped around his daughter’s little finger.
Why Patrick Malahide as Soames?
So, why would Patrick Malahide be so good as Soames Forsyte? For starters, Soames is a villain-not-a-villain sort of character – well, in my opinion, anyway – with a lot of facets and depth to him requiring some nuance and sensitivity. He sometimes behaves in a callous and cruel fashion towards others… okay, frequently… and is far more concerned with his appearance to the outside world, but it all arises from repressed emotions he barely understands and has no idea how to express. In large part, the way he behaves is driven by the way society expects him to behave; he’s a conformist, in contrast to his Bohemian cousin Young Jolyon who’s decidedly a non-conformist. But what makes him not-a-villain – eventually – is that he transforms and evolves; he does learn how to express his softer side, and Malahide excels at portraying villains-not-villains (or entirely villains) because there’s so much more to them.
I could easily see Malahide very effectively depicting Soames’ progression and development as a character. He starts out as a very acquisitive, calculating, intense, and somewhat cold young man who’s completely bound up in ideas of propriety. We’ve seen Malahide play colder characters before, like the Rev. J.G. Keach or the Rev. Edwin Sorleyson. However, where Keach is acutely aware of how he seems to others, Soames isn’t, or doesn’t care enough to let it alter his behaviour – one of his bigger flaws. Both characters are capable of emotional outbursts under stress (after a lot of seething and imploding), but Keach’s outbursts wound mostly himself rather than others. It would also be fascinating to see Malahide’s take on Soames’ smittenness with the beautiful and artistic Irene, who would need to be played by someone able to capture the aethereal qualities and mystery of the book version (I’m afraid McKee didn’t quite do it for me). She’s someone he feels he must have at all costs and doggedly pursues with no real knowledge of how to woo her (actually, it’s doomed anyway because she’s simply not attracted to him, though “repelled” might be a better word), and I’d love to see how Malahide would play this headlong dash into disaster. Morbid of me, I know. 😉
Coldness and Obsession
Soames’ unhappy marriage offers great opportunities for drama as he becomes increasingly frustrated and expresses himself in a series of contained but fierce implosions, all the worse for their being restrained – it seems to concentrate and amplify their force. How his head doesn’t explode, I have no idea. Malahide can make implosions incredibly intriguing to watch; just take a look at Chisholm sometime! You can sense so much of what’s going on underneath the surface by watching him; it’s not just an outburst of temper out of nowhere. Malahide’s also very effective at obsession and Chisholm and Soames are both obsessive characters, although in Cheerful Charlie’s case it’s played out to comedic effect. Better examples might be Magnus in “The One Game” or even Jack Turner, who are deadly serious in their relentless pursuit of revenge. Both Magnus and Jack could be extraordinarily cruel too, with little regard for the impact of their actions on others, and Soames has some of that quality as well.
Soames’ Softer Side
It’s hard to believe, but Soames does have gentler emotions and a softer side. We get a glimpse of these when Irene leaves him for good and he holes himself up in his bedroom for days, wounded to the core but unable to articulate what he feels. The best example I can think of for this would be one of my favourites, the Rev. Edward Casaubon, whose feelings ran very deep indeed but had no idea how to communicate them, preferring instead to lock everything carefully away and let it gnaw on him. Like Soames, Casaubon also had deep insecurity over his wife’s friendship with a much younger, artistic man, though he ultimately had far less cause for concern.
Malahide’s characters also seem to have much more forgiving and loving attitudes towards their daughters than their sons (sorry, Theon and Stevie!), and I’d love to see how he’d portray Soames’ melting at the birth of his daughter. It’s Fleur’s love that gives Soames the opportunity for a kind of redemption; he becomes (a bit) kinder, warmer, and more of a human being through becoming a father; he even tips further the other way by spoiling her rotten. He’s now self-aware enough to recognize that he’s doting and over-indulgent, but he just doesn’t care. We see some shades of this with Balon Greyjoy’s love for Asha, John Poole’s devotion to daughter Leanne in the excellent and heart-wrenching “Five Days“, and especially in Lord Glendenning’s utter indulgence of daughter Katherine in “The Paradise“.
However, I don’t want to create the impression that Malahide’s Soames would or should be a mish-mash of bits and pieces of all of these characters. Instead, these characters have given me a tantalizing idea of what he could have done with Soames if he’d ever been given the opportunity. I would have loved to see how he would have unified all the aspects of such a complex, compelling character and brought still more of himself to them to create a cohesive and fascinating new interpretation of Soames – the villain who’s not a villain who grows to become a sort of hero.
“The Forsyte Saga” is well worth a look if you’ve never seen it before, by the way. It’s available online through Amazon.com’s streaming video service (U.S. viewers only) and also on Youtube (until it gets yanked).