Across four decades and in 32 books, Farley Mowat has redefined the Canadian wilderness, painting vivid portraits of what is often an outwardly bleak landscape. Lost in the Barrens (1956), Mowat’s third novel and the fourth to be made into a movie, portrays that frontier with particular energy. Set in 1935, it is the story of Jamie, an orphaned boy who runs out of money and has to leave an exclusive Toronto boarding school for a seemingly desolate existence in northern Manitoba. “This is not at all my idea of an adventure,” says Jamie (Nicholas Shields) as he leaves behind his elegant dormitory for the dim, pelt-lined log cabin of his Uncle Angus (Lee J. Campbell). But the young man rises to the occasion. And in bringing his story to the small screen, so too have screenwriter Keith Ross Leckie, director Michael Scott and Shields himself: the two-hour movie from Toronto’s Atlantis Films and Winnipeg’s Muddy River Films is an artfully rendered adaptation of Mowat’s classic tale.
The barrens of the movie’s title are a stark wasteland near the border of the Northwest Territories, feared with equal intensity by native Indians and white settlers. Jamie’s Uncle Angus describes the area lying to the north of his cabin as “the worst place on earth—wind so strong, it’ll tear the skin off your face, not a tree for fuel, not a bush for shelter.” But Jamie is determined to prove his uncle wrong, and he embarks on a canoe trip into the forbidden land, accompanied by Awasis (Evan Adams), a young Indian boy who has recently dropped out of school. When their boat smashes in the rapids, they are marooned for several weeks and forced to confront the vast wilderness—and their narrow, racist images of each other.
In their battle to survive, the two boys surmount hunger, snow blindness and a distressingly close call with a grizzly bear. Through it all, Shields brings just the right mixture of childlike trepidation and late-adolescent aplomb to his role. His performance, combined with Leckie’s intelligent script and a powerful score by Randolph Peters, makes Lost in the Barrens a heartwarming saga about a young man’s coming-of-age.
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