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There’s an interesting blend of novelty and familiarity in AMC+ and BBC Two’s The North Water.
The five-part limited series is a rousing nautical adventure of the sort you very, very rarely see attempted on television, owing to production logistics and costs. I appreciated how even if The North Water only rises a little bit above average, it does so in a way that doesn’t resemble most of what I find in my weekly screener pile.
But being different within the TV landscape isn’t quite the same as being purely distinctive, because Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of Ian McGuire’s novel rapidly becomes a shopping list of genre influences from ultra-obvious inspirations like Herman Melville (Moby Dick) and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Patrick O’Brian (the Aubrey–Maturin series) to slightly more contemporary antecedents like Cormac McCarthy or Dan Simmons, whose novel The Terror and its subsequent AMC adaptation could very nearly play as a sequel to The North Water.
What this means is that watching The North Water is to constantly alternate between admiring the attempt to tackle a difficult genre at all and being aware that if you’re a fan of the genre, nearly everything you’re seeing has been done before, if not always better.
The series starts in 1859 with a whaling vessel staffing up for a journey to the icy waters between Greenland and Canada in search of pelts and blubber. It’s a waning industry and the Volunteer, a vessel under the command of Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham), is embarking with an ulterior motive. The crew of the Volunteer is your usual assortment of men looking to the sea as a literal escape from the more rigorous morality on land and as a metaphorical opportunity to wash away past sins.
Our main protagonist is Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), a ship’s surgeon seeking a third or fourth shot at redefinition after a military stint in India left him in disgrace and with the sort of opium addiction that fiction suggests nearly every 19th-century doctor suffered from. Hailing from the dark side is Colin Farrell’s Henry Drax, master harpoonist and a monster with a nearly supernatural disinterest in the norms that govern men under the yoke of civilization.
As the Volunteer drifts north and inches closer to its ultimate goal, the crew becomes less and less tethered to the colonialist British construct of decency and even the best among them exhibit a brutality matching that of nature itself.
The capturing of that brutality represents both what The North Water does best and what will prove its greatest barrier of entry. The series, written and directed entirely by Haigh (HBO’s Looking), is built around a handful of harrowing and occasionally spectacular set-pieces. But if I tell you there’s a breathtaking sequence of scruffy British sailors — nearly unrecognizable in their respective balaclavas — swarming across an ice floe slaughtering and butchering seals, or that the Volunteer’s first encounter with a whale culminates in a harrowing and graphic flensing sequence, is that likely to encourage you to watch?
I could add that whatever viciousness the sailors in The North Water exhibit to animals is a mirror of the viciousness they exhibit toward each other or that The North Water was actually shot in the Arctic and some of the visuals of frozen, barren nature are jaw-dropping. But that might not help you get past the “butchering seals” part, nor would my attempting to explain that it’s all representative of the decline of the British Empire and whatnot.
There’s an explicable sparseness to the natural environs, but a more confusing spareness to the narrative here. Part of what generally hampers on-screen nautical adventures is the tendency toward crowding and chaos — as great as it sometimes was, The Terror had a vast ensemble of indistinguishable people — while The North Water has maybe a half-dozen characters and my impression of the Volunteer was that it was weirdly understaffed. At the same time, the events on the Volunteer are perplexingly limited, with head-scratchingly abrupt climaxes to several storylines and truncated character backstories. At five hours, The North Water plays as an adaptation that might have been better either at two hours, accelerated to nothing but thrills and suspense, or fleshed out to eight episodes with Sumner’s experiences in India, Brownlee’s ill-fated previous expedition and anything about Drax other than his being a force of elemental evil given room to feel like more than distant echos of previous maritime yarns.
The solid performances from the ensemble smooth over some of what the writing skips over. O’Connell effectively puts on a veneer of legitimacy as an Irishman doing anything to outrun his station and his own addictions and demons. He’s evading — without success — his savagery as Farrell’s Drax is running headlong into his barbarity. This is a pure “character actor” performance from Farrell, who’s all uncouth mumbling and lumbering, feral menace. Farrell is not, in a general sense, a looming figure, and much of Haigh’s craft is dedicated to creating the illusion that the actor is a hulking brute. This is surely the closest Colin Farrell will ever come to resembling The Hound from Game of Thrones.
There are fine supporting turns by Graham, halfway between O’Connell’s performative gentility and Farrell’s layered surliness, and Sam Spruell as the Volunteer’s aggressively amoral first mate. In only three or four scenes, British acting icon Tom Courtenay — star of Haigh’s exceptional film 45 Years — does much to elevate the series’ pedigree, as does the reliable Peter Mullan.
Ultimately, The North Water is full of too many storytelling gaps and contrivances to really work cumulatively, but the performances and locations and Haigh’s execution of one or two pivotal scenes per episode keep it fairly watchable. More than anything, it made me wish more people had watched The Terror — and, more than that, that a Netflix or Amazon had dedicated the resources to a multi-season television adaptation of O’Brian’s Master and Commander books.
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