Roush Review: A Harrowing Journey Into the Icy ‘North Water’
Here’s a cure for the sweltering dog days of summer: a journey into the icy Arctic, courtesy of an ill-fated whaling expedition replete with murder, treachery and the near-collapse of what passes for 1800s civilization. By the time the grueling journey into The North Water is over, your blood may well have run cold.
That’s certainly the experience of disgraced Army surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell of Netflix’s Godless), the very flawed hero in writer/director Andrew Haigh’s gripping five-part adaptation of Ian McGuire’s celebrated novel. (Episodes stream weekly on Thursday on AMC+.) A laudanum addict tormented by memories of war in India, Sumner signs up to be the ship’s doctor aboard the whaling vessel Volunteer, where he’s often a lone voice of civility, morals, and ethics.
The seas are rough and the men even rougher—especially Sumner’s nemesis, the brutishly psychopathic harpooner Henry Drax (Colin Farrell in sinister wolfman mode). His taunting of the not-as-good-as-he-seems doctor takes on an even more frightening edge after Sumner voices his suspicions following a shipboard murder.
But it’s not like the drugged-up Sumner set sail to make friends, anyway. “To me, they are bodies only,” he muses in voice-over narration. “It is not my task to judge, soothe or befriend them. In my current state, I have very little comfort to give.”
The influences in this literary thriller are many. Melville would love the authenticity of the whaling scenes, filmed on location in the frigid Arctic, while Conrad would appreciate the heart of darkness that lies within the unrepentant Drax and even the ship’s corrupt captain (Stephen Graham), whose mission has less to do with whaling than fraud.
When Sumner’s meddling leads to further calamity, The North Water becomes an even more riveting tale of survival, with Sumner eventually succumbing to his basest animal nature in a graphic scene that’s so primitive and primal you wonder if he’s passed the point of no return. But greater evil is yet in store in a climax that’s more cathartic than redemptive.
If Cormac McCarthy is your idea of a light summer read, then The North Water will be just your cup of tainted poison.
The North Water, Series Premiere, Thursday, July 15, AMC+