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


There’s one thing inherently fascinating about these white, icy areas on the earth’s poles – an atmosphere directly stunning and deadly. It’s straightforward to be captivated by these locations, whereas on the similar time not deluding oneself into considering one would have the fortitude to outlive them. It’s safer to go the vicarious route, merely studying about or watching movies set in such locales. I’ve beforehand shared, on this very column, a randomly sparked however apparently enduring curiosity within the Nineteenth-century whaling business. Thus, after I stumbled throughout a trailer for The North Water, which mixes each of this stuff – whaling and the Arctic – my pleasure was intense. (Absurdly so, maybe.)

The North Water is a restricted collection (a one-n-done, no dedication required) which, so far as I can inform, is barely obtainable on the American facet of the pond by means of AMC+, a subscription streaming service; the BBC aired it within the UK. The 2021 collection is predicated on a 2016 guide of the identical title by Ian McGuire. I missed the arrival of this intriguing novel – it was longlisted for the Man Booker, made a lot of “greatest books of the 12 months” lists, and critics have been effusive (“sensible” appears to have been the Adjective of the Day). I at all times choose to go guide earlier than movie, for a couple of totally different causes – it solely appears truthful to privilege the literary supply materials, but it surely additionally presents perception into the motivations and implications of that materials’s adaptation for the display – what was misplaced, what’s gained within the movie model. Nonetheless, on condition 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 display earlier than guide this go spherical.

The North Water, the collection, was written and directed by British filmmaker Andrew Haigh, a selection which may initially appear incongruous. Haigh is understood for intimate movies that concentrate on a single protagonist, and he makes use of that lead character’s perspective to inform the story. He’s been quoted as saying that “Blocking is every little thing…I like how folks exist inside area and the way they handle the area round them.”1 The way in which he locations characters in relation to one another inside the scenes of The North Water displays this, and infrequently gives as a lot in the best way of illumination because the dialogue (maybe extra; between the thick accents and growled enunciation, it’s tempting to activate subtitles). Whereas The North Water does have a main protagonist, the work deviates from Haigh’s sample in that it’s not at all times from that protagonist’s perspective that the story advances, and that is actually a story with two main character foci and a big scope, utterly divergent from Haigh’s typical subject material.

Within the port of Hull in 1859, Irishman Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell) boards the Volunteer, taking a publish as ship’s surgeon. His background is murky; by means of expository flashbacks, the viewer learns that Sumner has been cashiered out of his publish as a military surgeon in India, the place one thing extra traumatic even than the “traditional” horrors of warfare occurred to him. The justifications he provides for a person of his schooling and skills signing on to a whaleship are all handy lies that idiot nobody. Sumner definitely doesn’t snow the ship’s captain, Brownlee (Stephen Graham), who informs the surgeon that whalemen are “refugees from civilization,” sensing that that is exactly what appeals to Sumner. Brownlee has a hidden agenda, and Sumner seeks a reckless escape, each in signing on to a whaler when he has little information of the ocean, and within the bottles of laudanum he retains locked in his medication chest. In the meantime, harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell) has additionally joined the ship’s complement. Earlier than we ever see him aboard, we’re handled to a transparent estimation of his character: the collection opens as Drax finally ends up with a prostitute within the dim streets of Hull, then heads straight for the closest pub. After unsuccessfully making an attempt to commerce his knife and boots for a drink, one other patron spots him a spherical to forestall the inevitable confrontation about to happen between Drax and the publican. When this benefactor refuses to purchase him a second drink, Drax waits outdoors, stalks him by means of the streets till he occurs upon a handy location, then brains him with a brick in a darkish alleyway earlier than robbing him. One has the impression the theft was simply an afterthought, not the motive.

Whereas Sumner is the principle protagonist and a fascinating one, he’s surrounded by an exemplary ensemble solid within the individual of Stewart as Brownlee, First Mate Cavendish (Sam Spruell), kindly arms earlier than the mast Otto (Roland Møller) and Jones (Kieran Urquhart), amongst others. But it’s Drax who’s foil and counterpoint to Sumner’s tormented soul (the collection’ opening card is the Schopenhauer quote “For the world is Hell, and males are on the one hand the tormented souls and on the opposite the devils in it.”). Sumner is a little bit of a Hamlet – considering, considering, self-medicating and considering some extra, centered inward on previous wounds he continues to prod. Drax, against this, exudes amoral, informal menace. He goes about his whaling duties with environment friendly brutality. At 5 ft 10 inches, Farrell is much from hulking, but with slightly additional weight (half of which can be beard) and a few important appearing chops, he appears hulking on this manufacturing. Whether or not it’s clubbing helpless seals or exulting within the rain of blood from a whale’s final spouting as he drives his killing lance by means of its coronary heart, Drax personifies savagery. His character is all of the extra horrifying as a result of his motivations are so mundane. So usually in fiction, the antagonist is a few type of mastermind or, on the very least, deliberately evil. Quite a lot of our jurisprudence is predicated upon this idea of intent – no matter what the end result really was, what did one imply for the result of 1’s actions to be? It’s why statutes favor lesser sentences for unintentional manslaughter than for premeditated homicide. The top end result is similar: one human being is lifeless because of the actions of one other. However with out aware intent, the offense is taken into account lesser. With most fictional villains in much less competent authorial arms, there are dastardly, difficult plans and wrongs inflicted merely for the sake of “being dangerous.” Drax is precisely the alternative. He’s, like so lots of our workaday criminals, guided solely by impulse. As such, he’s a chillingly lifelike bogeyman. The truth that folks get harm is incidental; he kinds no intent past what appears one of the best plan of action to him within the second. “Oh, I don’t intend an excessive amount of,” Drax says cheerfully to Sumner, “I’m a doer, not a thinker, me. I observe my inclination…There ain’t quite a lot of cogitation concerned.” It’s what makes him extremely harmful. He acts, and regret isn’t an idea he understands, so he’s by no means affected by conscience, or paused in his actions by consideration of their penalties.

When a homicide happens onboard ship, it’s the first in a collection of occasions that shortly ends in a taut story of violence and battle for survival. The crew finally finally ends up on the ice, trapped and compelled to overwinter. I hesitate to say extra concerning the plotting of this Arctic thriller, lest I threat spoilers. However given the claustrophobia of life aboard the small whaler, mixed with the harshness of the Arctic atmosphere, the strain is palpable.

The soundtrack is gripping, the rasp of the ice because it snaps groaning timbers, the squeak of trainers slipping in whale gore. The cinematography is excellent, from the framing of the pictures to the sense of area (or lack thereof) and movement. The digicam usually intently follows the backs of characters – by means of the streets of Hull, up gangways to the ship’s deck, wending by means of crowded pubs – giving the viewer the sensation of tagging alongside behind as a part of the motion. The ship rises and falls with the swells of a storm, seawater spilling over the deck because the towering waves are framed behind, forwards and backwards, spill and scupper out. Belowdecks, seasoned sailors guffaw on the first mate’s Michael Jackson lean in the identical rhythm, effortlessly forwards and backwards with the ship’s rolling; in the meantime, Sumner, alone in his cabin, tries to brace himself and brings up innards all the best way to his shoelaces. Expansive overhead pictures of beautiful sea and shore are juxtaposed with the tiny, darkish interiors of the ship. After the seal hunt, a sluggish pan throughout the white expanse highlights pristine ice marred by the red-blood of skinned seal corpses, forlornly left to waste of their a whole lot. Although not at all times a palatable one, it’s a visible feast, and a few of it’s astonishingly stunning. The North Water has the excellence of getting been filmed the farthest north of any display drama, within the Svalbard area past Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. The setting feels so immersive as a result of it’s actual, not a sound stage water tank or CGI.

Maybe one can’t put a worth on realism, however filming in such a harsh atmosphere has apparent drawbacks past the fiscal, for each actors and crew. To perform scenes filmed at solely 500 miles south of the North Pole, the manufacturing used not solely the Volunteer (really a bolstered schooner named the Activ), however there have been additionally icebreaker and accomodation ships. A climate eye was stored out for polar bears in addition to disintegrating pack ice floes, which might lure the actors and crew filming upon them. Multiple crew member has remarked on the extremes and depth of filming so close to the pole, the punishing emotional and bodily toll it takes. Farrell famous that, when filming lastly wrapped and the ships started heading again to civilization, “I’ll always remember the aid I felt that no one died.”2

The North Water is a kind of uncommon choices close to equally praised by critics and audiences alike. There have been different comparatively current choices in comparison with it just by dint of setting and survivalist parts (eg, The Terror), however The North Water effortlessly outpaces them. Admittedly, it has its cliches: there’s an previous Norse sailor (Møller’s Otto) who’s cautious to relay his prophetic goals and, at one level, Drax really provides the “we’re not so totally different, you and I” spiel to Sumner. But, as one critic famous, The North Water “is a really totally different creature to the same old status interval piece… It’s way more existential, a type of anti-comfort viewing that seeks to unsettle fairly than reassure.”3 It’s the total presentation of the piece, its dedication to realism, which makes it a standout, all parts coalescing into one thing distinctive. Whereas the solid is uniformly good and O’Connell’s portrayal of the protagonist can’t be faulted, Farrell is a vitally essential a part of what makes this collection what it’s. Multiple critic referred to as him “unrecognizable,” meant in the absolute best means: an actor who has remodeled himself into the character he portrays. I felt a selected kinship with the critic from Vogue (a wierd sensation), who famous his personal obsession with seafaring epics and the chilly, white locations of the world, at all times trying to “fortunately set sail with a bunch of British and Irish actors who have been all doomed to an icy dying.”4 In The North Water, he discovered “a superbly mounted, genuinely unnerving, and, ultimately, nihilistically grim entry into this style — I’m sated as soon as once more.” Agreed. Although, glutton that I’m, it doesn’t imply I gained’t be retaining a continuing look ahead to extra Arctic epics wherever and at any time when they could be discovered.


  1. Seventh Row web site
  2. Gabriel Tate
    “Colin Farrell on making The North Water: ‘It’s a aid that nobody 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 overview: Colin Farrell and Jack O’Connell lead a gruelling however richly rewarding interval piece.” The Night Normal, 10 September 2021.  https://www.customary.co.uk/tradition/tvfilm/the-north-water-bbc-review-jack-oconnell-colin-farrell-stephen-graham-b954694.html
  4. Taylor Antrim
    “The North Water Is the Newest Cause 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

In regards to the contributor: Bethany Latham is a professor, librarian, and HNR‘s Managing Editor. She is an everyday contributor to NoveList and an everyday reviewer for Booklist.

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