‘Barkskins’ – Pristine wilderness, human ugliness
It’s the 1690s and the resource-rich land of New France is ready to explode into all-out war.
In “Barkskins,” an eight-episode limited series based on the novel by Annie Proulx and premiering Monday, May 25, on National Geographic, it is in the small settlement of Wobik where France has sent indentured servants, young women and others to start families, populate the territories and help the colonies thrive. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has sent Jesuit priests to convert the indigenous people.
But life in the wilds of what is now Quebec is harsh for those accustomed to a more civilized European existence, especially in the face of attacks by local Iroquois. The land’s considerable fur, lumber and other natural resources prove enticing to many and the villagers find themselves drawn into the conflict.
Among them are Claude Trepagny (David Thewlis, “Fargo”), a wealthy landowner with big plans for New France; Mathilde Geffard (Marcia Gay Harden, “Pollock”), innkeeper and burgeoning power player; Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard, “Dunkirk”), a mysterious agent for the rapidly expanding Hudson’s Bay Company; Charles Duquet (James Bloor, “The Coldest Game”), a schemer working as a servant for Trepagny, as is Rene Sel (Christian Cooke, “Magic City”), a morally sound man who wants to work the land and start a family.
The series was filmed just outside Quebec City, where the village of Wobik was constructed on forested land. With no electricity or running water and lots of cold and mud on the painstakingly detailed set, the actors got a taste of the conditions the original French settlers had to endure and an immersive experience that gave them a big assist with their performances.
“There was a roughness to that living,” Harden explains, “and down-and-dirtiness to that living that we were all a part of because we were shooting in that environment and I kind of loved it. You know, if you had to swat a fly in the middle of the take, they would say, ‘Keep it! Keep it! We love it!’
“I think whenever you’re surrounded by reality,” she continues, “you don’t have to depend on your imagination so much … it’s just right there. So whether it’s the cold or the wet or the discomfort or the smoke or whatever it is, it’s there, it’s in the environment so you can use it rather than imagine it.”