The North Water review: the BBC’s Victorian Whaling drama is dark, gritty and chilling autumn viewing

Based on Ian McGuire’s book, the five-part series stars Colin Farrell and Stephen Graham

It’s oh so grim - but oh so enjoyable.

Adapted from Ian McGuire’s Booker-longslisted novel, the Victorian drama about the 19th-century whaling industry is one part murder-mystery, one part Heart of Darkness, and two parts The Terror.

Set aboard an Arctic whaling ship named the Volunteer, the story follows Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), the ship’s surgeon as he seeks to redefine himself  after leaving the military in disgrace.

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The Volunteer is steered by the duplicitous Captain Arthur Brownlee (Stephen Graham) who has the job of ensuring the crew doesn’t fall apart during their everlasting voyage into the baron Arctic landscape.

Graham once again proves he might just be the most reliable man on TV right now. He’s so good at playing the everyman, that even his menacing moments as Captain Brownlee are subtly charming.

Stealing the show is comic book villain Henry Drax (Colin Farrell). On board as the Master Harpooner, nothing seems to please Drax more than conflict, and killing.

Colin Farrell is as twisted and brutal as you would hope a merciless whale killer would be. He’s at points unrecognisable, and I highly suggest putting on subtitles if you want to understand every word. If not, his growling and grunting works well for the show’s aesthetic.

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There’s a fantastic unpredictability about his performance. His knockout punch could come at any time, but I found myself wanting to be charmed by his wicked ways, as much as seeing his brutalism on full display.

Writer/director Andrew Haigh has worked well with the series’ cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc to make Farrell seem bigger than he is. The camera constantly lurks behind him, through the tight cabins of the Volunteer, and up close shots of his rough facial hair.

The set pieces are exceptional, allowing Haigh to masterfully put together a show that feels both dark and immensely gritty, with a hyper-macho cast.

Great performances from Roland Møller, Joseph Hannah and Sam Spruell add a layer of conviction away from the principal roles, meaning every trip to the upper deck is filled with golden nuggets of sailing intrigue.

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Together, with Tim Hecker’s impeccable soundtrack, The North Water is perfect viewing for anyone looking for a five-part discomfort fest this Autumn.

However, longtime fans of Victorian ship dramas may be left disappointed. The familiarity of the genre does come as a fault to the show. Without giving enough of an edge, the show does nothing vastly different to other televised nautical tales in the last ten years. It’s a shame, but the cast’s performances are enough to pull the - at points - damp storyline up the mast.

Overall, the North Water is  an admirable take on a difficult genre: chilling, subtly philosophical (thanks to O’Connell’s lyrical narration), and wonderfully gruesome.

The North Water airs on BBC Two on Friday 10 September at 9:30pm. Episodes air weekly after. All episodes will also be available to stream on BBC iPlayer from the same date.

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