Review: ‘Northern Water’ Has Blood on the Ice


The talented British writer and director Andrew Haigh doesn’t like to be pressed. His last three movies, all of which were excellent, were all over the place: a domestic drama with an element of mystery about an aging British couple.“45 Years”); A sad tale of gay friendship set in San Francisco (“Looking: The Movie”); and a heartbreaking, violent coming-of-age tale about a boy and a horse in the American west (“Lean on Pete”).

If they have a common theme, it’s about testing people, pushing their limits. In the smart, beautifully shot mini-series “The North Water” (five episodes, starting Thursday on AMC+), Haigh takes this idea to new extremes and ventures into new narrative space once again. Loosely adapted from a famous movie novel of the same name Written by Ian McGuire, “Northern Water” is a 19th century Arctic adventure complete with creaking ice, relentless storms, mystical polar bears and seal sticks.

It is also a parable with strong family ties to the work of Joseph Conrad and Werner Herzog, as this type of adventure tends to be. Haigh’s protagonists – ship’s surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell) in the whaler Volunteer and master harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell) represent civilization and savagery, respectively. As the volunteer crosses Greenland, they circle each other against the backdrop of a conspiracy to commit rape, murder, and potentially deadly insurance fraud on board. To a greater extent than in the book, the real evils are capitalism and empire, as Sumner finally discovers that a British maritime office poses greater dangers than even the Arctic.

Haigh, who wrote and directed the entire series, presents Sumner and Drax – and by extension, social norms and savage brutality – as two sides of a coin. Sumner, who was addicted to laudanum during his military service in India and had flashbacks to harsh events, manages to do barbaric things to survive. The random murder-prone Drax, meanwhile, has a basic chivalry and a fierce seductiveness made completely convincing by Farrell. His murders, the gruesome handiwork, have an apologetic, almost courteous quality. (You miss him when Drax leaves the story in chapters four and five.)


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