Review: “The North Water” is a Bleak, Deliberate, and Chilling Horror

Taking us from the smog of 1857 London to the bleak Arctic winter in the dank belly of a Yorkshire whaler, “The North Water” is a riveting, grueling odyssey driven by a luscious, character-focused plot. Jack O’Connell stars as Patrick Sumner, a down-on-his-luck former army surgeon who takes a desperate job on a whaling ship where Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), a brutish harpooner and ruthless killer, has too found work. Written, directed, and adapted for TV by Andrew Haigh, “The North Water” made its BBC 2 debut on September 10, 2021, although it received an initial release on AMC+ on July 15, 2021. The miniseries is based on Ian McGuire’s 2016 novel of the same name. Intimate in its writing, uncomfortably yet masterfully close in its performances, and harrowing to the very last, “The North Water” is a striking horror that forges slowly, yet steadily, onwards to its bloody conclusion. Spoilers ahead, as well as discussion of topics such as sexual abuse.

“The North Water” excels, first and foremost, in its aesthetic cohesion and considered deliberate storytelling. Accompanied by stark, wide shots of Arctic sea ice (courtesy of cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc), “The North Water” unfolds slowly and incredibly richly over the course of its five episodes. It paces its blubber (and blood)-slick deck at its own leisure, to its advantage—the series’ pacing gives its narrative space to grow and thicken and gives us viewers a chance to chew on the tense, rough marrow hanging off the show’s bones. We are treated to long, remarkably-acted scenes that shift and stretch within their own murky tension. In one particular instance, First Mate Michael Cavendish (Sam Spruell) and Henry Drax spend the entirety of a four-minute scene framed by a claustrophobic close-up, shuttered in a dim tent, plotting and grappling for power as the camera sways around them. It is in these scenes that “The North Water” proves itself as a powerhouse of meticulously crafted tension and pacing, trusting its audience to engage even as it slows to savor the meat of its narrative.

Another one of “The North Water”’s standout features is its stellar cast. Each performance, from a barman who appears for five minutes to Patrick Sumner himself, is marked by dedication, depth, and a grittiness characteristic of the series itself. Stephen Graham’s performance as Captain Arthur Brownlee is particularly captivating, bringing to life a man who embodies not only the grimy roughness of his trade but also the morals and humanity quivering beneath his duties (One downside: we are deprived of a delightful scene from the book where Brownlee drinks blood out of a boot, stranded in the Arctic during his first captaincy. Mr. Haigh. Where is it.). The character dynamics, too, are made ever richer by these performances—Drax and Cavendish’s strange, frizzy friendship, in particular, meshes with such nuance and complexity because of Farrell and Spruell’s chemistry. Dimensions obscured or absent in the novel are highlighted through some truly sublime performances. Without Spruell’s work behind Cavendish’s character, for instance, I doubt we would have been privy to Cavendish’s reverence of Drax “like how at school you idolized and adored the most conventionally-able kids sometimes. Whether it be the athlete, or the most popular, or the most good looking” (to quote Spruell himself).

The series is a salient study in adaptation, particularly as much of the story and lines were taken directly from the book. Ian McGuire’s novel contains some truly tasteless gore—not only gratuitous but immensely insensitive in its approach to topics that warrant sensitivity. Slurs are excessive, children are killed in incredibly violent ways, and sexual abuse is exploited for shock value. Haigh’s adaptation strikes a significant amount of this material, in a vast improvement, and approaches the rest of the material with the tact that it deserves. A cabin boy’s sexual assault and murder are not depicted on screen, the killing of two Indigenous characters is significantly obscured, and the series is stronger for it. Though most definitely imperfect, “The North Water” takes steps in showing television can still be gritty, gory, and dark while respecting its subject matter.

“The North Water” is a gripping voyage to the far north—from London to Lerwick to Lancaster Sound and beyond, it enraptures, holds, and beckons. Slow and deliberate in its pacing, phenomenal in its performances, tactful in its depiction of sensitive issues, the series is tense and masterful. Certain moments may feel contrived (such as dramatic thunder blasting while Drax waits to murder Sumner), but aside from these awkward stumbles, the series is cohesive and enjoyable. A success in direction, adaptation, performance, and writing, “The North Water” brings bone-deep horror to rich pacing, characters, and storylines.

“The North Water” receives a 4.5/5 for its considered pacing, stunning performances, and tense story.