REVIEW: “For the world is hell, and men are on the one hand tormented souls and, on the other hand, the devil is in it.”
The words of 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer open and weigh in on the haunting, harrowing and highly addictive British period drama northern water.
Debuting on Sky TV’s Rialto channel tonight, Sunday April 17 at 8.30pm (episodes will also be available to stream on Sky Go), the five-part tale is based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Ian McGuire.
Although initially set in Hull in 1859, most of the action takes place aboard the whaling ship Volunteer, eerily, ominously and claustrophobically animated by the series’ production design team. Coupled with a clever use of off-kilter angles, dark sets and tight shots from director Andrew Haigh (Lean on Pete, 45 years old), it all sounds like a less salubrious above-water version of Wolfgang Petersen Das Boot.
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However, this is a tale where the character is king – and North water has them in spades. There’s the ship’s new doctor, Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), who left the military under a cloud and is now embroiled in legal complications over his uncle’s estate. Also, Captain Arthur Brownlee (Stephen Graham), who managed to maintain his career, despite the drowning of eight men aboard his last expedition, when the Percival sank in somewhat mysterious circumstances.
But these two are hardly as memorable or menacing as master harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell). When we first meet him – with disheveled hair and a thick beard – he growls through a dimly lit quickie, before we follow him down the cobbled streets to a local pub where he attempts to trade whatever he still has rum for toddlers.
Before dawn and the ship’s departure, he will have been engaged in a fatal argument and is now more than a little more tired. He’s not alone either. Stunned after a night of daydreaming, Sumner clearly feels uneasy and wonders what the hell he got himself into.
Shot on location off the coast of Norway (the cast and crew apparently lived on two small boats in the Arctic Circle for six weeks), northern water will be catnip for method lovers.
It’s a production plagued by what feels like a total commitment to facial down and no-shower immersion, no more than the truly hulking Farrell, who reportedly piled on the pounds by lifting heavy weights and eating until eight meals a day. His Drax is not someone you can easily forget, but he is also greatly aided by others who are fully committed to ensuring that audiences feel transported to the mid-19th century and all of its deprivations.
With everyone seemingly having an agenda – and secrets – the stage is set for an immersive dose of evocative and provocative drama.
northern water begins broadcasting on Sky TV’s Rialto channel on Sunday 17 April. It will also be available to stream on Sky Go.