The North Water is a five episodes mini series that tells the gritty story of a surgeon, Patrick Sumner, who follows an ill fated whaling ship’s journey to the Artic North in the 1800’s. It’s setting is reminiscent of Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea and the TV series The Terror Season 1, both of which explores the psychological as well as physical perils of such expeditions during the 19th century.
In The North Water, the scope of the story is tighter, preferring to remain focus on its narration by the surgeon in voice over. It is nevertheless no less impactful and enlightening in an era that has long passed, and in unfamiliar terrains that is both breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying at the same time. As the series progress, we are taken along to witness the brutality of seal and whale hunting. The beauty of the white icy waters and ice bergs of the Artic gives way to the cruel and bloody manner in which the seals are hunted, skinned and dragged back to the ship. The scene of whaling was no less impactful and graphic in its depiction. Definitely not something you will witness on the National Geographic channel.
The icy landscape is always majestically captured on film and while The North Water excel in making this backdrop feel like a character on its own, it has an even more vicious story to tell with its characters. Colin Farrell is a revelation here as a brutal sadistic harpooner, Henry Drax. He is almost unrecognisable under all the facial hair, and dirt with a bloated bulked up physique. He is well cast with Jack O’Connell as the contrastingly virtuous Dr Sumner. Their performances here provide the many highlights in a tale reflecting the fragility of the human virtues when faced with extreme situations. Surviving the harshness of the Artic winter will take a lot of human endurance and a little bit of luck or divine intervention, depending on how you look at it. Director Andrew Haigh successfully makes it all work and believable. He also finds time to add in small touches of details that would standout. For example, how almost every episode would end with a haunting sea shanty (song) while the credit rolls, just feels perfect as a closing note and a strangely calming effect over the heavy material that had just transpired.
How the tale all ends is always important given the stress and trauma we are subjected to. For me, this was the weakest point of the series as it felt more straightforward than the preceding narration. Nevertheless, The North Water is another example of fine television, that puts many movies to shame. It’s high quality production values, Oscar worthy performances and a story that takes us to unfamiliar territories, easily makes this one a standout and something to remember.