The North Water
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Set in 1859, this BBC/AMC collaboration tells the story of an ill-fated whaling expedition from Hull, England into the Arctic. It follows two men aboard the ship: Patrick Sumner, an Irish ex-army surgeon trying to escape his past, and Henry Drax, a shark-like predator who works as a harpooner. Sumner is a deeply flawed but aspirationally decent man on the fringe of society, and this voyage could mean the difference between securing a more stable place in the civilized world or falling out of it entirely. Drax is almost more animal than human. Their vastly different ways of seeing and being in the world put them in bitter conflict. The North Water is about order vs. chaos, rationality vs. instinct, humanity vs. brutal, indifferent nature.
Sumner is played by Godless and ‘71’s Jack O’Connell, while Drax is played by Colin Farrell in his latest brilliant, daring performance. The ship’s captain, Arthur Brownlee, is played by the great British character actor Stephen Graham, perhaps best known in America for his role of corrupt union leader Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano in The Irishman.
Before we go any further, I have to be very clear that people who cannot tolerate seeing depictions of violence toward animals should not watch The North Water. A whale, a polar bear, and an untold number of seals meet heinous ends. It’s a brutal show about brutal men, and it does not spare any darkness.
But if you can stomach it, The North Water is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. It has austere beauty and an astonishing level of craftsmanship. It won’t be nominated for any Emmys next year – not enough people will see it to vote for it – but it should contend in acting, writing, directing, production design, cinematography, editing, sound, and score. Writer-director Andrew Haigh – best known for his work on the HBO dramedy Looking and the low-key indie drama Lean on Pete – had not previously demonstrated he was capable of something this intense and ambitious, but now he has to be in the conversation as a versatile and visionary filmmaker.
The closest analogue to The North Water is Season 1 of AMC’s anthology series The Terror, which is also a British nautical period piece about an ill-fated arctic expedition. The shows were even both filmed primarily in Hungary and share a cast member in actress Nive Nielsen, who on both shows is one of the only women. But where The Terror throws some supernatural horror into the mix, The North Water stays steadfastly grounded in reality. The Terror was about monsters both magical and human, but The North Water doesn’t need to make the clichéd point that men are worse than monsters, because it has no monsters besides men.
The other close comparisons are HBO’s acclaimed limited series Chernobyl, for its grim mood and story of human weakness or bravery in the face of calamity (I wonder if The North Water would be a surprise sleeper hit like Chernobyl if it weren’t on the fairly obscure streaming service AMC+), and Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, for the dynamic between Sumner and Drax. Henry Drax is like a feral version of McCarthy’s Judge Holden, a man who lives to kill. And, of course, Moby-Dick is an influence.
Farrell gives an excellent performance of a kind we haven’t quite seen from him before. He turns his natural charm completely off to play the dead-eyed psychopath and transforms into a physically imposing, animalistic brute. It’s his Anton Chigurh moment.
Thematically, The North Water is about the decline of the British Empire. These sailors are doing the thing they’ve always done – traveling somewhere and dominating whoever and whatever they find – but the world is changing. Whaling is a dying industry, and Captain Brownlee’s directive on the voyage isn’t even to harvest whales and seals, but to commit insurance fraud for the ship’s owner. But colonial cruelty is all he knows, so he’s going to kill anyway, even if he knows there’s no point to it. So yeah, The North Water is not something to watch if you’re looking to unwind for the night. But if you’re looking for something that’s challenging in a way TV rarely attempts to be and does successfully even less often, you should sign up for AMC+ just to watch it.
The North Water is not for everyone, but it’s a must-watch for fans of sea faring adventure dramas and truly cinematic television.
This one is probably best to watch alone, with time to meditate in quiet contemplation on human nature afterward. Fans of The Terror (another dark AMC historical series) or Chernobyl are likely to embrace it, as are fans of Hemingway and Melville. Maybe if your dad or someone in your life likes nautical dramas and has a high tolerance for miserabilism and graphic violence, you could watch it with them.
The bone-deep cold of The North Water is authentic. Parts of the show that take place on the Arctic ice were filmed on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, which according to the BBC is the farthest north any drama series has ever filmed.