Review: The North Water

Jack O’Connell, Colin Farrell and Stephen Graham star in this arctic adventure. Photo: BBC

Based on the novel of the same name by Ian McGuire, The North Water is an impressive See Saw production, helmed by Andrew Haigh who wrote and directed the adaptation.

In The North Water we meet Patrick Sumner, played by Jack O’Connell, an ex-army surgeon formerly stationed in India and witness to colonial atrocities there. He signs up to join a whaling crew headed to the arctic in an attempt to find a new beginning after a court martial.

Right from the start the music and camerawork create a dissonant and unsettling effect, which continues, and increases, as the men move further away from Hull and into the unknown.

It is shot with large sequences of natural light and on-location set-ups that bring a very effective sense of realism, particularly the feeling of cold on the period-accurate vessel.

A warning for the squeamish, this drama brings many instances of up-close detail of blood and injury to the screen. It is not gratuitous, but it does occur and it’s best to know in advance, if that particularly affects you.

Sumner’s character is hard to understand at first; we see he is very reluctant to engage with the other crewmates, and keeps himself (and his laudanum addiction) to himself. However, we gradually understand his apprehension as having seen people commit untold violence earlier in life, it becomes clear he still carries the trauma.

The ship is made up of rough characters and a tougher lifestyle that, particularly during a seal hunt scene, can be hard to watch. The most heavy-handed and prone to violence is the harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell) who we meet stalking the pubs and brothels of the docks – and learn he is no stranger to murder.

Colin Farrell as Henry Drax in The North Water.
Colin Farrell plays the unpredictable and violent harpoooner Drax.

The captain, Brownlee, played by Stephen Graham, is harder to fathom; capable of seeming trustworthy without ever fully cloaking his duplicitous character (which is quite impressive considering his screen time is secondary to Sumner and Drax), he is a man conflicted by his obligations to his employers (to sink the ship he commands, for money) and his own sense of honour.

Being party to insurance fraud doesn’t sit well on his shoulders, but his role in the sinking of ‘The Percival’ years earlier has left him in a dangerously compromised position with his employer (the magnificently sordid Tom Courtney) and the two carefree murderers among his crew, Drax and the first mate Cavendish (Sam Spruell), both of whom may be there to make sure he, like the ship, does not return to port.

Colin Farrell’s performance as Henry Drax is intimidating even through a screen, and O’Connell’s sensitive interpretation of Sumner is very well cast, he manages to be cold and clinical but also heartfelt and empathetic.

In terms of storyline, there is no single mystery presented in the first episode, or any big ‘hook’ to pull you in; however, as Sumner writes in his diary, “it is a mistake to think too much”, the point of the series is to invite you along for the ride and lose yourself in a different time and place.

The journey is to be felt more than thought about, and watched as though you were not just a viewer but also a real member of the crew attempting to navigate that kind of harsh environment. The North Water is very effective at this, and the sense of isolation and vulnerability is palpable, it makes for a very compelling watch.

The North Water episode one is a great watch, and the upcoming episodes can be streamed on BBC iPlayer right now, or caught on TV as they come out every Friday.