Review: In ‘The North Water,’ There’s Blood on the Ice

The gifted British author and director Andrew Haigh doesn’t prefer to be pinned down. His final three movies, all glorious, have been throughout the place: a home drama with a component of thriller about an growing older British couple (“45 Years”); a rueful gay-friendship story set in San Francisco (“Looking: The Movie”); and a heartbreaking, violent coming-of-age story a couple of boy and a horse in the American West (“Lean on Pete”).

If they’ve a typical theme, it’s about folks being examined, arising towards their limits. In his clever, superbly filmed mini-series “The North Water” (5 episodes, starting Thursday on AMC+), Haigh takes that concept to new extremes and as soon as once more units out for brand new narrative territory. Loosely tailored from a celebrated novel of the identical identify by Ian McGuire, “The North Water” is a 19th-century Arctic journey, full with creaking ice, implacable storms, mystical polar bears and seal clubbing.

It can be, as this form of journey tends to be, a parable, with sturdy household ties to the work of Joseph Conrad and Werner Herzog. Haigh’s protagonists — Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), ship’s surgeon on the whaler Volunteer, and Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), its grasp harpoonist — signify civilization and savagery, respectively. And as the Volunteer sails previous Greenland, they circle one another towards a backdrop of shipboard rape and homicide and a conspiracy to commit probably lethal insurance coverage fraud. The actual evils, to a higher extent than in the e book, are capitalism and empire, as Sumner finally finds that a British transport workplace holds even higher risks than the Arctic.

Haigh, who wrote and directed the whole sequence, presents Sumner and Drax — and by extension, social norms and feral brutality — as two sides of a coin. Sumner, who’s hooked on laudanum and has flashbacks to harsh occasions throughout his army service in India, is ready to do barbarous issues to outlive. The casually homicidal Drax, in the meantime, has a baseline chivalry and a gruff seductiveness which might be made wholly convincing by Farrell. His murders, terrible affairs dedicated by hand, have an apologetic, virtually light high quality. (When Drax drops out of the story for a stretch in the fourth and fifth episodes, you miss him.)

Haigh’s present is for seriousness, and for a cautious, credible realism that provides his work a richness regardless of how quiet or seemingly easy the motion could also be. In “The North Water,” he and the Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, filming in authentically excessive areas north of the Svalbard Archipelago in Norway, seize superior vistas of small wood boats shifting by means of checkerboard squares of ice. But Haigh and Bolduc are simply pretty much as good with the fire- and lantern-lit confines of ship and camp. The extremity of the narrative additionally permits for the occasional expressionist contact, as in a hallucinatory scene wherein Sumner trails a polar bear by means of the fog.

“The North Water” takes place in an virtually totally male milieu, and Haigh, whose gay-themed work has included “Looking” (the film and the HBO sequence), the function “Weekend” and the documentary “Greek Pete,” offers the sequence a definite however ambiguous sexual cost. Apart from the violence of the rape story line, the lifetime of the whalers — seen dancing after a profitable hunt or clownishly enjoying as the waves toss the ship — has an intimacy that could be homoerotic or could be an elevated, emotional camaraderie; it doesn’t actually matter which it’s, and the characters themselves may not know or care.

O’Connell and Farrell are each advantageous, and the glorious solid consists of Stephen Graham as the ship’s captain and, in a small however assured efficiency, Tom Courtenay as its proprietor. No one overdoes it, even when the motion will get baroque, and their restraint is matched by Haigh’s. He doesn’t bask in melodrama or viewers pandering (with the exception, maybe, of the sequence’s previous couple of minutes), and that’s so exceedingly uncommon even in at this time’s world of status TV that you just really feel the absence virtually bodily. Unlike nearly another present that makes the declare, “The North Water” actually does really feel like a five-hour film.

And as such, it’s, maybe, slightly longer and slightly extra restrained than it wanted to be. Haigh’s concepts about society and human nature are legible and convincing, and his journey story is, second by second, believable and engrossing. The two sides don’t fairly come along with the pressure you’d like them to have, nevertheless — particularly at its conclusion, “The North Water” looks like a narrative you’ve learn earlier than.