Upon reflection, my main takeaway from The North Water is that I’m so glad I wasn’t born in the 1800s. Of course, our society is plagued by some massive issues here in the present day – a pandemic, the climate crisis and staggering inequality to name a few – but even still, we’re not quite at the level of unrelenting bleakness that characterised an ordinary life 200 years ago. The North Water is a showcase for the particularly dour existence of whalers – “refugees from civilisation” as one character describes them – taking us aboard The Volunteer for a fateful voyage destined for utter calamity.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ian McGuire, the miniseries stars Jack O’Connell (Godless) as former military surgeon Patrick Sumner, who takes a job as medic aboard the doomed vessel. Given that such a role is usually filled by a student, he is subjected to suspicion and derision by his fellow crew members from the beginning, none moreso than harpooner Henry Drax, played by Colin Farrell (True Detective). More animal than man, Drax routinely displays a disturbing lack of empathy or remorse, which (sadly) makes him best suited to survive the brutal times ahead.
The North Water gets off to a middling start with an opening episode that takes some time to really set sail. The story gets underway in 1859’s Hull, recreated with a magnificent set that feels both atmospheric and authentic. Writer-director Andrew Haigh has no trouble building a sense of foreboding here, although these scenes and a later stop-off in Lerwick do start to drag after a while. It’s a slow start and some viewers might find their mind wandering midway through this first instalment, but those who can weather the set-up will be well rewarded.
Undoubtedly, the show hits its stride in episode two, where the real drama starts to unfold within the claustrophobic walls of The Volunteer as well as the desolate expanse outside. As has been well publicised, Haigh took on the challenge of taking his cast and crew further north than any television drama has dared go before, and the results speak for themselves. It’s an environment that simply couldn’t have been replicated on a soundstage (or at least not with anywhere near the same visual and narrative impact).
Certainly, the location doesn’t pull any punches and nor does any other aspect of The North Water, telling a dark story that harbours more than one macabre twist. This unflinching commitment makes the show’s substantial gore feel earned rather than gratuitous, feeling completely consistent with its cruel and merciless world. The graphic depiction of sealing and whaling will, I suspect, be particularly uncomfortable for many viewers, with the barbaric Drax relishing in his blood-soaked work.
Farrell is a definite standout, with the unpredictability of his performance making every one of his scenes a nail-biter, while his physical transformation is used correctly as a tool rather than a crutch. But the truth is that there isn’t a single weak link in this cast from the legendary Stephen Graham as Captain Arthur Brownlee to newcomer Stephen McMillan, who gives a heart-wrenching turn as cabin boy Joseph Hannah. Sam Spruell, Roland Møller, Kieran Urquhart and Philip Hill-Pearson add some real depth to The Volunteer’s crew, while Tom Courtenay makes a big impression in a relatively small role.
The only thing hampering their performances is that the occasional line is tough to interpret, whether a result of mumbly delivery, archaic terms, audio mixing or a combination of the three. Of course, most viewers will now have the option to rewind even if watching live, although in a few instances I struggled on the second attempt too. There could be a few complaints about missed dialogue floating around social media on the night of the premiere, but fortunately, The North Water remains comprehensible overall.
While slow to start off with, The North Water develops into a gripping watch as the characters are dealt one misfortune after another. Not for the faint of heart, the series is undoubtedly grim and gory, which makes it a peculiar choice for a Friday night slot. But if you like to kick off your weekend with some intense human misery, you’ll find enough to fill your boots here. Or you could just watch on iPlayer.