A brutal landscape provides the setting for a showdown between good and evil in The North Water, a five-part limited series from creator Andrew Haigh streaming now on AMC+. Based on the novel by Ian McGuire, Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) wrote and directed the series, starring Jack O’Connell as Patrick Sumner, a disgraced former army surgeon who signs on for a whaling expedition in the hopes of escaping his traumatic past. Little does he know that even greater horrors await him, as he sets sail on a ship filled with criminals and lowlifes, the most dangerous of them all being Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), a harpooner who isn’t afraid to murder a man for even the slightest perceived offense.
Sumner and Drax are placed on a collision course from the early goings of Haigh’s series, but there’s plenty more surrounding this dynamic, including the ship’s Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham) making a deal with its owner Baxter (Tom Courtenay) to sink the ship during the expedition in order to collect the insurance money. There’s not much in the way of hope and positivity out on these seas, setting the stage for a grueling five hours that examines the dark despair that these men can sink into.
Shooting on location on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, The North Water reportedly set a record for the furthest north any television drama had ever shot. As you can imagine, that put the cast and crew through overwhelmingly miserable conditions, something which translates into the experience of watching these characters suffer at the harsh cruelty of nature. Is this their punishment for their sins? Are they in Hell? While Haigh keeps things firmly grounded in reality, there’s no denying that the sheer agony of the world these men are in opens up the door for existential questions to take hold.
First and foremost, Haigh’s series is about redemption, about honor, or the lack of it. This isn’t in a polemic way, preaching to the audience about living the “fair and just life”, but rather about your own honor code, and how (or if) you can live with yourself when you feel you’ve broken it. For some men, like Drax, they believe the world is a cruel and unforgiving place, and they’ve tailored their behavior accordingly. This is a man who takes what he wants however he has to do it, and shows no remorse for such. For others, like Sumner, he punishes himself with addiction while still trying to hold onto some sense of what he believes to be right.
This puts the two men on a path to knock up against each other, yet it’s not the path we expect. There are surprising deviations throughout the course of these five episodes, as we take detours into borderline courtroom dramas and full-on Herzogian descents into madness in the unforgiving terrain. The elements constantly bash up against these men, with the throughline being those distinct scales on the balance of morality that Sumner and Drax represent. To match the texture of the world, Haigh cast two intensely physical actors in O’Connell and Farrell, perfectly matched to face one another over the course of the series.
Farrell is absolutely unrecognizable in the nastiest role of his career – truly one of the most despicable figures we’ve seen on screen in years. He’s a man who terrifies you the second you see him on screen, and only becomes more chilling the longer we spend time with him. It’s a fully committed performance unlike anything we’ve seen from the actor to date. Opposite him, O’Connell serves his function as our audience surrogate while also aptly possessing the humanity that the audience needs to hold onto within Sumner, our one hope for restoration from the misery that this series inhabits for five straight hours. A tremendous actor who often doesn’t get the material he deserves, O’Connell finds himself in a part worthy of his gifts here, and watching the two go head to head is one of the many satisfying gifts that The North Water bestows on viewers.
The seriesis bound to invite comparisons to not only Herzog’s works, such as Aguirre, The Wrath of God, but also to the more recent The Revenant in its approach of putting these men, the characters and the actors/crew, through unrelentingly difficult circumstances in order to achieve this machismo-laden product that feels like something from another time. While that Iñarritu picture felt too self-conscious in its execution, Haigh’s efforts here are far more rooted in the experience of the characters and capturing the reality of what they’re going through. This is where the decision to shoot on location, as opposed to on a soundstage in London somewhere, pays off wonderfully. Haigh has pulled off something quite impressive here, and a major departure from what we’ve seen from him in his career so far.