Remote, forbidding, deolate and beautiful, the allure of the arctic circle as a place of escape and of man’s confrontation with his own fears is hugely attractive to dramatists. A blank canvas for all kinds of contemplation, the icy expanse may look serene but true brutality, cruelty and obliteration lurk beneath the surface. Andrew Haigh’s five-part adaptation of Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water comes to the BBC in September and the first two episodes, previewed at the BFI earlier this month, suggest this will be a glorious if difficult watch as the nights draw in.
Nautical masculinity and the perils of exploration at the furthest reaches of the earth have been at the forefront of the mind of television writers this year with word-of-mouth hit The Terror becoming a bingeworthy if gruesome third lockdown talking point. The claustraphobic experience of a group of men trapped on two boats frozen into the ice became compelling viewing and, while the series was driven by a mysterious and potentially supernatural beast preying on these naval sitting ducks, it was the complicated relationships, political dilemmas and the very human test of endurance that kept us watching. Ridley Scott’s drama understood well that whatever was out to get these men – the physical appearance and visual representation of which could only ever be slightly disappointing – man’s emotional fragility and unstoppable imagination meant they would almost certainly turn on each other before the mythical beast had a chance.
So while The Terror asks questions about who the real monsters may be, The North Water leaves you in no doubt. This tale of whalers relies on a more informal concept of masculine organisation and while there is clearly hierarchy within the ship headed by a hard-nosed Captain, here rank, class and the extensive traditions of the navy hold very little sway. Instead, this is a community that draws its power from physical strength, intimidation and experience, the closed world of comradeship. With a prior knowledge of one another, the pack animal mentality they exude can only exist through a shared and successful desire to hunt and to kill.
Into this scenario comes Sumner the ship’s surgeon who finds himself in direct confrontation with crew members Cavendish and Henry Drax (a solid Bond villain name) who set out to quite deliberately torment the medic and push his ability to endure while testing his manly response to the pressures they exert. A form of hazing takes place in the first episode as Sumner’s willingness to join in and demonstrate both allegiance to the ship and a similar manual and even murderous skill set to the other men is pressed to its limits.
The story establishes a two-tier system in which brute strength and a refusal to admit either pain or defeat determines whether someone is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the group. The emergence of authority figures as people without official rank per se but in possession of other forms of social cache is vital to understanding the seemingly blunt but actually quite complex power structures which Sumner’s arrival upsets, forcing the existing old guard to make a pre-emptive strike. They put on an almost animalistic display of strength in which they forcibly shut-down any potential threat he could pose – noting however that Sumner’s outward behaviour towards these men in Episodes One and Two is only ever withdrawn, isolated and medically driven.
What is interesting about McGuire’s structure that Haigh replicates on screen is the extent to which danger is something that exists more within than outside this whaling ship and, despite the vast emptiness of the beautiful but trecherous landscape, it is man who creates the unsettling atmopshere that poses a threat to health and, as it turns out, to life. The Terror by contrast largely took the opposite view, believing that great danger awaited the men in the icy wilderness, relying on the centuries-old belief in naval hierarchy, subsvervience to traditions and faith in the routines of authority to guide them through their unprecedented abandonment. That those formal professional structures broke down over time was surprising to the Officers suddenly overwhelmed by the mutinous demands of the lower ranks and their own human fallibility as bodies and minds gave way. Naval endurance in the end proved no match for suspicion, fear and the monsters beyond.
The North Water offers neither the same kind of formal organisational structures or a comparable concept of the men as reactive or passive participants in the events of the story. In fact, the crew of the whaling ship are the predators, sailing towards the pole (at least on the surface) to harvest as many seal skins and whale parts as their hull can carry. Here, the monsters are already onboard and without the same rigour as the Royal Navy’s codes of deference, embedded and worn into every recruit, the men of this commercial vessel are relatively free to govern themselves, behaving as contractors jostling for space and position rather than united members of a whole pursuing scientific advancement as the crew of The Terror had set out.
As a result, there is almost an amplified school playground feel as the men divide into groups determined by firmess of character and physical strength, locating and fixating their attention on the weakest members – initially a cabin boy whose experience becomes central to the events of these opening episodes – and newcomers like Sumner, behviour to which the Captain inexplicably turns a blind eye. Where the Navy had order and endeavour, the whaling ship organises itself by power and destruction as its driving force, and it is clear from the show’s earliest moments in the grimy streets of Victorian Hull, that this is a merciless bunch – the creatures of the arctic circle don’t stand a chance.
The drama stems from the somewhat unknown quality that is surgeon Sumner and how much he is prepared to endure. Clealy not all he claims to be, in some ways Sumner represents the legitimate order and external scrutiny the men fear, a former military doctor who saw action in India during a ferocious rebellion a short time before his voyage began and is continually troubled by visions and night terrors that invade his consciousness throughout.
To the standard crew of this vessel he seems a man apart, both in class and manner, projecting a degree of refinement and status that the audience very quickly learns does not accord with the humble origins he sometimes betrays and the outcome of events in India which, in these early episodes, remains mysterious although increasingly intrusive. He is no stranger to death and killing, and while a pivotal event at the end of Episode One proves his relative physical weakness in these conditions, Sumner is yet unphased by the slaughter that he is dared to participate in. Who Sumner really is and what he has done is central to a story that (so far) is driven far less by plot than character and scenario establishment which can only suggest something significant is about to bring it all crashing down.
Perhaps Sumner’s most interesting attribute is that he is nonetheless perceived to be a threat by the other men, and however unprepossessing or defeated he may appear at this stage, Cavendish and Drax decide to keep him close in order to alay whatever their true purpose on this ship might be, a hint of which is given between Captain Brownlee and Cavendish behind closed doors. Initiating him into their drinking session before fully leaving British waters, consulting him onboard, searching his cabin and testing his mettle suggest a desire to know their opponent and to assess what effect he may have on the stablity of the ship. That determination only grows when Sumner becomes involved in a medical case that cuts to the heart of how these men live onboard and the broad forms of protection or immunity they enjoy away from the moral and legal limits of shore life.
What we see in these first two episodes is something growing between Sumner and Drax particularly, two men who could not be more different yet drawn into each other’s orbit for some as yet unknown reason. The chemistry between Jack O’Connell’s watchful Sumner and Colin Farrell’s forbidding Drax is very particular, elusively compelling in fact as they circle around on another without displaying any decided feeling towards the other man, although there is an alertness to their presence and a recognition that is it somehow significant. Now this early dance is concluded and they have the measure of one another, this relationship will surely drive the remaning episodes.
Much depends on Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Drax which he plays in these opening episodes with a cold emptiness. He is a man, as Farrell explained during the Q&A that accompanied this screening, that has no empathy but there is control, a restraint that lingers beneath the surface that make him a valued hunter. Adding considerable bulk to his usual frame, this is a very physical performance from Farrell – a trait synonymous with his most recent work – and Drax is not a man you would want to meet down a dark alley which is exactly what happens to some poor soul in the Hull-set preface included here to demonstrate not just Drax’s disregard for civilised expectation but his ability to physically overwhelm it. Yet for all his silent threat, Farrell suggests the flicker of disturbance that Sumner causes, how Drax is drawn to him, and while this doesn’t change his outward behaviour, almost fatally so during a seal cull, the smallest of ripples have started to gather pace.
Jack O’Connell’s Sumner is a mass of intriguing contradictions, a man making the best of his background with a solid war record but addicted to laudenum and going to great lengths to conceal anything about himself. It is an interesting trajectory for O’Connell who captures the authority and medical concern of the doctor who is unflinching in his readiness to go against the grain for a patient despite the unwelcoming environment but who displays deep vulnerability when alone. The PTSD flashbacks give O’Connell the chance to show Sumner as the man he was before whatever terrible event recast his life, flashes of which he brings through into the performance as Sumner attempts to keep up with the physical activity onboard, ever watchful as the net starts to close in on him.
With a fine supporting cast including Stephen Graham as the ambiguous Brownlee and Sam Spruell as his accomplice the grubby Cavendish both with a dastardly plan the true details of which are yet to be fully revealed, along with Tom Courtenay as an unscrupulous businessman in Hull, there is an fidelity to the production style that draws the viewer into the socio-political machinations onboard as well as the hard conditions endured by working class men on land and in the icy north.
Episode One and Two both contain brilliantly achieved but incredibly graphic depictions of animal slaughter which forced at least one person out of the screening, but Haigh was quick to reassure the post-show audience that CGI and production design united humans with seals and whales filmed separately. It is a hard and gruesome watch nonetheless, but it is this level of authenticity that gives the adaptation its strength, pushing the actors to extremes by filming further north than a television series has ever been and refusing to sanitise or obscure the hardness of this life. The tone will certainly suit its autumnal scheduling and with so much emerging from these opening episodes, The North Water really has everything to play for and many secrets to reveal.