By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — The forbidding quotation that frames the five-part nautical drama “The North Water” establishes the tone for this challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, miniseries.
It comes from famously pessimistic 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who observed: “The world is hell, and men are both the tormented souls and the devils within it.”
Independent British filmmaker Andrew Haigh (“45 Years”) adapted the BBC production from his fellow countryman Ian McGuire’s acclaimed 2016 novel. The first episode is streaming now on AMC+. Subsequent installments will become available consecutive Thursdays through Aug. 12.
Our introduction to the grim, brutal environment in which the show is set comes via one of its two principal characters, harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell). In keeping with the gritty atmosphere of the proceedings overall, which unfold in the year 1859, we first encounter Drax — a figure so crude in his manners as to seem almost feral — as he settles accounts with a prostitute.
Drax is preparing to sail from the port city of Hull on a whaling ship called the Volunteer. Once onboard, Irish surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), the program’s other protagonist, will become both Drax’s shipmate and his nemesis.
Subject to “disgrace and humiliation” as the result of an incident during his service with the British army while they were fighting to suppress the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Sumner represents his appointment as the Volunteer’s doctor — both to himself and to others — as an opportunity for redemption, one that leaves him feeling “at liberty, finally free.”
In reality, though, joining the vessel’s crew is Sumner’s only viable option.
The enmity between ruminative Sumner and devil-may-care Drax is the driving force of the story. It reaches a climax when the former exposes Drax as the culprit in the murder of cabin boy Joseph Hannah (Stephen McMillan). Following this revelation, Drax kills the Volunteer’s commander, Capt. Brownlee (Stephen Graham).
Drax, however, is not the only one engaged in criminality. Together with his first mate, Cavendish (Sam Spruell), Capt. Brownlee, it turns out, had been part of a scheme initiated by the Volunteer’s owner, Baxter (Tom Courtenay), to wreck the vessel as part of insurance scam.
As will already be apparent, the voyage of the Volunteer is not an excursion suitable for all. Even many grown-ups may find the often graphic — though only occasionally lurid — violence that attends it excessive.
Add to that strong sexual content, the period-accurate but potentially disturbing treatment of animals as well as narcotics use, and the audience for which the show can be endorsed is still further restricted. As for the dialogue, it’s sometimes seamy but never gratuitously so.
Hardy adults will, at least, find significant artistic merit embedded amid these problematic elements. This is especially true where the main performances are concerned.
Courtenay, who was outstanding in “45 Years,” is a wonder to watch as the amoral Baxter, who believes he can talk his way out of any trouble. O’Connell’s sensitive portrait of Sumner will also resonate with viewers. A troubled soul who can’t escape his ruinous past, Sumner eventually recognizes that, for better or worse, he isn’t that different from his enemy.
Yet it’s the scarcely recognizable Farrell who steals the show. He somehow succeeds in making a man capable of horrendous things seem appealing.
Despite its predictable ending, “The North Water” ultimately registers as an unusually thoughtful exploration of serious, complex moral issues. Viewers willing to embrace its harsh lessons will find that it leaves a lasting impression.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.