History & Film | For the World Is Hell: The North Water


There’s something inherently fascinating about those white, icy spaces at the earth’s poles – an environment at once beautiful and lethal. It’s easy to be captivated by these places, while at the same time not deluding oneself into thinking one would have the fortitude to survive them. It’s safer to go the vicarious route, simply reading about or watching films set in such locales. I’ve previously shared, in this very column, a randomly sparked but apparently enduring interest in the 19th-century whaling industry. Thus, when I stumbled across a trailer for The North Water, which combines both of these things – whaling and the Arctic – my excitement was intense. (Absurdly so, perhaps.)

The North Water is a limited series (a one-n-done, no commitment required) which, as far as I can tell, is only available on the American side of the pond through AMC+, a subscription streaming service; the BBC aired it in the UK. The 2021 series is based on a 2016 book of the same name by Ian McGuire. I missed the advent of this intriguing novel – it was longlisted for the Man Booker, made a number of “best books of the year” lists, and critics were effusive (“brilliant” seems to have been the Adjective of the Day). I always prefer to go book before film, for a few different reasons – it only seems fair to privilege the literary source material, but it also offers insight into the motivations and implications of that material’s adaptation for the screen – what was lost, what is gained in the film version. However, given that this column had a deadline and my library’s copy of the novel was checked out, I put a recall request in and resigned myself to screen before book this go round.

The North Water, the series, was written and directed by British filmmaker Andrew Haigh, a choice that might initially seem incongruous. Haigh is known for intimate films that focus on a single protagonist, and he uses that lead character’s perspective to tell the story. He’s been quoted as saying that “Blocking is everything…I love how people exist within space and how they manage the space around them.”1 The way he places characters in relation to each other within the scenes of The North Water reflects this, and often provides as much in the way of illumination as the dialogue (perhaps more; between the thick accents and growled enunciation, it’s tempting to turn on subtitles). While The North Water does have a primary protagonist, the work deviates from Haigh’s pattern in that it is not always from that protagonist’s perspective that the story advances, and this is really a tale with two major character foci and a large scope, completely divergent from Haigh’s typical subject matter.

In the port of Hull in 1859, Irishman Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell) boards the Volunteer, taking a post as ship’s surgeon. His background is murky; through expository flashbacks, the viewer learns that Sumner has been cashiered out of his post as an army surgeon in India, where something more traumatic even than the “usual” horrors of war happened to him. The justifications he gives for a man of his education and abilities signing on to a whaleship are all convenient lies that fool no one. Sumner certainly doesn’t snow the ship’s captain, Brownlee (Stephen Graham), who informs the surgeon that whalemen are “refugees from civilization,” sensing that this is precisely what appeals to Sumner. Brownlee has a hidden agenda, and Sumner seeks a reckless escape, both in signing on to a whaler when he has little knowledge of the sea, and in the bottles of laudanum he keeps locked in his medicine chest. Meanwhile, harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell) has also joined the ship’s complement. Before we ever see him aboard, we’re treated to a clear estimation of his character: the series opens as Drax finishes up with a prostitute in the dim streets of Hull, then heads directly for the nearest pub. After unsuccessfully trying to trade his knife and boots for a drink, another patron spots him a round to forestall the inevitable confrontation about to occur between Drax and the publican. When this benefactor refuses to buy him a second drink, Drax waits outside, stalks him through the streets until he happens upon a convenient location, then brains him with a brick in a dark alleyway before robbing him. One has the impression the robbery was just an afterthought, not the motive.

While Sumner is the main protagonist and an engaging one, he’s surrounded by an exemplary ensemble cast in the person of Stewart as Brownlee, First Mate Cavendish (Sam Spruell), kindly hands before the mast Otto (Roland Møller) and Jones (Kieran Urquhart), amongst others. Yet it is Drax who is foil and counterpoint to Sumner’s tormented soul (the series’ opening card is the Schopenhauer quote “For the world is Hell, and men are on the one hand the tormented souls and on the other the devils in it.”). Sumner is a bit of a Hamlet – thinking, thinking, self-medicating and thinking some more, focused inward on past wounds he continues to prod. Drax, by contrast, exudes amoral, casual menace. He goes about his whaling tasks with efficient brutality. At 5 feet 10 inches, Farrell is far from hulking, yet with a little extra weight (half of which may be beard) and some significant acting chops, he seems hulking in this production. Whether it’s clubbing helpless seals or exulting in the rain of blood from a whale’s last spouting as he drives his killing lance through its heart, Drax personifies savagery. His character is all the more frightening because his motivations are so mundane. So often in fiction, the antagonist is some kind of mastermind or, at the very least, intentionally evil. A great deal of our jurisprudence is based upon this concept of intent – regardless of what the result actually was, what did one mean for the outcome of one’s actions to be? It’s why statutes favor lesser sentences for unintentional manslaughter than for premeditated murder. The end result is the same: one human being is dead due to the actions of another. But without conscious intent, the offense is considered lesser. With most fictional villains in less competent authorial hands, there are dastardly, complicated plans and wrongs inflicted simply for the sake of “being bad.” Drax is exactly the opposite. He is, like so many of our workaday criminals, guided entirely by impulse. As such, he is a chillingly realistic bogeyman. The fact that people get hurt is incidental; he forms no intent beyond what seems the best course of action to him in the moment. “Oh, I don’t intend too much,” Drax says cheerfully to Sumner, “I’m a doer, not a thinker, me. I follow my inclination…There ain’t a great deal of cogitation involved.” It’s what makes him incredibly dangerous. He acts, and remorse isn’t a concept he understands, so he’s never affected by conscience, or paused in his actions by consideration of their consequences.

When a murder occurs onboard ship, it is the first in a series of events that quickly results in a taut tale of violence and struggle for survival. The crew eventually ends up on the ice, trapped and forced to overwinter. I hesitate to say more about the plotting of this Arctic thriller, lest I risk spoilers. But given the claustrophobia of life aboard the small whaler, combined with the harshness of the Arctic environment, the tension is palpable.

The soundtrack is gripping, the rasp of the ice as it snaps groaning timbers, the squeak of boots slipping in whale gore. The cinematography is outstanding, from the framing of the shots to the sense of space (or lack thereof) and motion. The camera often closely follows the backs of characters – through the streets of Hull, up gangways to the ship’s deck, wending through crowded pubs – giving the viewer the feeling of tagging along behind as part of the action. The ship rises and falls with the swells of a storm, seawater spilling over the deck as the towering waves are framed behind, back and forth, spill and scupper out. Belowdecks, seasoned sailors guffaw at the first mate’s Michael Jackson lean in the same rhythm, effortlessly back and forth with the ship’s rolling; meanwhile, Sumner, alone in his cabin, tries to brace himself and brings up innards all the way to his shoelaces. Expansive overhead shots of exquisite sea and shore are juxtaposed with the tiny, dark interiors of the ship. After the seal hunt, a slow pan across the white expanse highlights pristine ice marred by the red-blood of skinned seal corpses, forlornly left to waste in their hundreds. Though not always a palatable one, it is a visual feast, and some of it is astonishingly beautiful. The North Water has the distinction of having been filmed the farthest north of any screen drama, in the Svalbard region beyond Norway, within the Arctic Circle. The setting feels so immersive because it’s real, not a sound stage water tank or CGI.

Perhaps one can’t put a price on realism, but filming in such a harsh environment has obvious drawbacks beyond the fiscal, for both actors and crew. To accomplish scenes filmed at only 500 miles south of the North Pole, the production used not only the Volunteer (actually a reinforced schooner named the Activ), but there were also icebreaker and accomodation ships. A weather eye was kept out for polar bears as well as disintegrating pack ice floes, which could trap the actors and crew filming upon them. More than one crew member has remarked on the extremes and intensity of filming so near the pole, the punishing emotional and physical toll it takes. Farrell noted that, when filming finally wrapped and the ships began heading back to civilization, “I’ll never forget the relief I felt that nobody died.”2

The North Water is one of those rare offerings near equally praised by critics and audiences alike. There have been other relatively recent offerings compared to it simply by dint of setting and survivalist elements (eg, The Terror), but The North Water effortlessly outpaces them. Admittedly, it has its cliches: there’s an old Norse sailor (Møller’s Otto) who is careful to relay his prophetic dreams and, at one point, Drax actually gives the “we’re not so different, you and I” spiel to Sumner. Yet, as one critic noted, The North Water “is a very different creature to the usual prestige period piece… It is far more existential, a sort of anti-comfort viewing that seeks to unsettle rather than reassure.”3 It is the overall presentation of the piece, its commitment to realism, which makes it a standout, all elements coalescing into something unique. While the cast is uniformly good and O’Connell’s portrayal of the protagonist cannot be faulted, Farrell is a vitally important part of what makes this series what it is. More than one critic called him “unrecognizable,” meant in the best possible way: an actor who has transformed himself into the character he portrays. I felt a particular kinship with the critic from Vogue (a strange sensation), who noted his own obsession with seafaring epics and the cold, white places of the world, always looking to “happily set sail with a bunch of British and Irish actors who were all doomed to an icy death.”4 In The North Water, he found “a beautifully mounted, genuinely unnerving, and, in the end, nihilistically grim entry into this genre — I am sated once again.” Agreed. Though, glutton that I am, it doesn’t mean I won’t be keeping a constant watch for more Arctic epics wherever and whenever they may be found.


  1. Seventh Row website
  2. Gabriel Tate
    “Colin Farrell on making The North Water: ‘It’s a relief that no one died.’” 28 August 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/aug/28/north-water-bbc-amc-colin-farrell-stephen-graham-jack-oconnell-andrew-haigh
  3. Katie Rosseinsky“The North Water review: Colin Farrell and Jack O’Connell lead a gruelling but richly rewarding period piece.” The Evening Standard, 10 September 2021.  https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/tvfilm/the-north-water-bbc-review-jack-oconnell-colin-farrell-stephen-graham-b954694.html
  4. Taylor Antrim
    “The North Water Is the Latest Reason to Love Unbelievably Grim British TV.” Vogue, 14 July 2021. https://www.vogue.com/article/the-north-water-is-the-latest-reason-to-love-unbelievably-grim-british-tv

About the contributor: Bethany Latham is a professor, librarian, and HNR‘s Managing Editor. She is a regular contributor to NoveList and a regular reviewer for Booklist.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 100 (May 2022)

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