Klondike [mini-series] is lovely – just less than it could be – by John Doyle (Globe and Mail – January 20, 2014)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Pasadena, Calif. — It starts tonight. It’s Discovery’s first-ever scripted project, Klondike (Discovery Canada, 9 p.m.). And here’s how a Discovery executive described the making of it: “56 days, 9,000 feet above sea level, above the cloud cover, temperatures that dropped to almost 30 below zero for 16 hours straight, and raging rapids. For our cast and crew, that was a day on the job. This is Klondike.”

The six-hour, three-night miniseries (continuing Tuesday and Wednesday) is based on Charlotte Gray’s 2010 book, Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. The guy in charge of the lavish adaptation is Ridley Scott. And there’s a stellar cast – Richard Madden from HBO’s Game of Thrones, Abbie Cornish, Tim Roth and Sam Shepard.

It’s good, entertaining and visually it is stunning. Just don’t look for premium-quality cable drama subtlety and nuance here.

As fine as it is, it seems like it was a quickie but eye-wateringly expensive production. Tim Roth was asked, “When you play a villain like this, do you do an elaborate backstory to justify how you behave?” To which he answered, “No!” And scoffed. He did note that the story was, “kind of an interesting concept.” But added, “You know, for me, nothing really dark and deep. You just muck about and then you hone in on things that seem to be working and you flush them out and push them through other scenes. I found him [the character] to be incredibly offensive but also quite funny. I find that’s what keeps me going with stuff like that.” Sam Shepard, meanwhile, was mighty interested in the fishing he could do while filming in Alberta.

The gist of Klondike’s story is this – it’s the 1890s and two restless young men, Bill Haskell (Madden) and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew, from The Borgias), go West as soon as they leave college. Eager to become quick successes, they soon head north, to Dawson City where, the word is, many men are getting rich finding gold. The journey is wonderfully filmed: the majesty of the mountains, the profoundly callous weather and conditions. Men are small in this environment, small creatures to be swatted away or crushed by nature.

Dawson City is heaven or hell, depending on your whim. Rogues and hookers like Sabine (Conor Leslie, from Revenge) abound. There’s an evil manipulator called the Count (Roth). There is an apparent innocent woman now gone greedy, named Belinda (Abbie Cornish), a boss among male desperados, and there is a religious fanatic, Father Judge (Sam Shepard) who is, of course, not what he seems. Dawson City is, in short, the whole world itself in all its flavours and madness, all of life captured in one isolated place. Terrible things happen. Love finds a way. Things like that unfold.

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