Barkskins: Annie Proulx’s Ecology of American capitalism

June 20, 2020
National Geographic’s prestigious dramatic series is brutal and binge-worthy.

The opening scenes of Barkskins are of a massive forest fire at night. The silhouette of a native Indian runs through the smoke and blaze, then a terrified young girl flees and takes refuge.

We are in late seventeenth Canada at the very beginning of colonisation by French and English settlers who would, over the next 300 years, all but destroy America’s vast redwood forests in pursuit of the wealth and technology that would see the country become the most powerful economic centre of the western world.

Barkskins is the latest novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain, The Shipping News). The saga is her opus and paean to ecology. Proulx kept her hands firmly on this screen adaptation in her role of Executive Producer, though the screenplay and showrunning was by novelist and TV writer Elwood Reid.

Adapting a 700-page book covering three centuries of American capitalism and land rape seems an almost impossible task.

Reid told Golden Derby about being offered the writing job by National Geographic.

“They said, ‘We don’t know if this is adaptable.’ If you look at this book on its outside, it’s a 700-page book that tracks multiple generations of characters throughout the centuries. That’s hard to translate to television, but there was a tone and a theme in… the first 100 pages that I was captivated by.”

For audiences to be able to connect with such a sprawling story, the series relies on a number of key characters who each, in their own way, exemplify the confluence of early settlers, native Indians, indentured servants, aristocracy on the make and various brutal pioneers.

The series has shades of Black Robe and Silent River as it opens a window on the vicious survival gamble of pioneering life in a new world.

Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard) and Yvon (Zahn McClarnon) arrive in New France. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

As you would expect with a National Geographic production, the photography is stunning, including aerial shots that highlight the grandeur and vastness of the forests that this epic story is centred around. DP for the first series is James Hawkinson (Man in the High Castle) while David Slade (Hard Candy, Twilight Eclipse and TV series including Breaking Bad) directs.

After the opening scene of fires centred around a mysterious massacre, based on an incident that actually occurred in Quebec in the 1690s, we follow a boat load of new settlers entering the New France under the shadow of hung bodies of Iroquois Indians.

Like the characters we are introduced to, we are thrown into an unfamiliar world and have to somehow get our bearings. It’s difficult to know who to attach to, all the characters are at risk and their back stories take a while to establish as we shift from one to another.

Trepagny (David Thewlis) taps Duquet (James Bloor) with his walking stick as Sel (Christian Cooke) looks on. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

There is David Thewlis as an eccentric aristocrat offering work to French woodsman Christian Cooke played by René Sel (Point Blank), struggling with his integrity as he commits to three years’ service that will set him up in his own life. He tries to help fellow Frenchman Charles Duquet (James Bloor), a fever-ridden Parisian who has other ideas than doing honest labour.

Hamish Goames is an investigator from the Hudson Bay Trading Company. He’s played with intelligent intensity by Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk, Goldfinch) and his relative incorruptibility highlights the darker shenanigans of more brutal characters, like the scheming English aristocrat Cooke or thug Deputy Eric (Kent McQuaid).

Then we have indigenous Indians, Jesuits, and the so called ‘Daughters of the King’, young women who have come to the colony to find husbands and breed children. They are put through a basic sort of grooming school by a tough convent sister who checks their virgin status and tells them they’ll ‘learn to bake bread, brew beer and shoot guns’ in preparation for their new life.

Mathilde (Marcia Gay Harden) in Le Grand Inn. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

Tough, pragmatic innkeeper’s wife Mathilde, who defines her job as ‘serving unrefined food for unrefined men’, is played convincingly by Marcia Gay Harden, while Kaniehtiio Horn has a great screen presence that bridges the native and settler world in the character of Mari, common law wife of Thewlis’ French baron.

The accents are English, Irish and mainly French, in an effort to give a unified sense of the colony’s origins. The plotlines are concerned with alliances, betrayals and subterfuges among the characters. Because the characters are essentially vehicles for Proulx’s bigger ecological theme, they feel melodramatic at times and rather grafted on to the wide landscape of the history. It is almost up there with Game of Thrones for violence though, with less humour… But if you are after a binge watch, more series may be produced after this one, as there is plenty of material to cover in the 300-year span of the books.

The first series certainly has production muscle behind it. Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men), Garrett Basch (The Night Of), Eli Bush (Lady Bird) join Slade and Proulx in the impressive lineup of executive producers.

Barkskins debuted on Foxtel and Fetch TV VOD on Friday June 19, 2020, and will be broadcast as a marathon event on Sunday June 21 on National Geographic.

Main Photo Credit: Claudette floats in the pond after chewing on a root given to her by Melissande (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

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