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The North Water is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now.

Andrew Haigh’s five-part adaptation of Ian McGuire’s 2016 novel compels on several levels: as an intensely felt meditation on masculinity, as a thrilling technical achievement and as a ripping yarn. McGuire’s Booker-longlisted book depicts the motley crew of a whaling ship called The Volunteer, the ship’s name reflecting the ambiguous agency of the men it carries. They are volunteers, yes – but they are also desperate men, with a range of unsavoury reasons for undertaking such a rough and hazardous trip. Why would respectable, introspective ship’s surgeon Patrick Sumner, played here by Jack O’Connell, put himself through such hardship? The answer proves as simple and as complicated as the mission itself. The business of The Volunteer is to kill whales; it also isn’t. “The whales are small change in this game,” states preternaturally perceptive onboard psychopath Henry Drax (Colin Farrell). Sumner, too, has both stated aims – an inheritance is tied up in court; he wants an interesting gig to tide him over – and less overt motivations. That his shipmates see all too clearly his incongruity amongst them – “So we have an intellectual on board; wonder how you’ll cope with us rough brutes of the sea?” scoffs first mate Cavendish (Sam Spruell) – is one of multiple sources of friction and fear.

Haigh has examined machismo, vulnerability and the corrosive effects of buried secrets before, in his breakout feature Weekend (2011), its Oscar-nominated follow-up 45 Years (2015) and the television series Looking (2014). Lean on Pete (2017), adapted from the novel by Willy Vlautin and set amid the rugged landscapes of the American West, supplied a larger canvas for his subtle emotional insights and sensitive direction of actors. The North Water pushes still further Haigh’s affinities for both the epic and the intimate. Its men are at once as closely confined and interdependent as lovers, and – as they push further and further north – adrift in a place of barely conceivable emptiness. Pleasure is grasped at hectically, as in a final orgy of drinking and whoring in the port of Lerwick; or stolen in secret, in the form of sexual assaults and illicit intoxicants.

Deftly balancing conversations that probe the true intent and meaning of this harsh odyssey, from variable philosophical and educational perspectives, with viscerally physical sequences that emphasise just how little the verbal matters here, Haigh continually challenges us to assess how much and whether Sumner’s perpetual inner analysis of himself matters – and by extension, the degree to which any of us is served by self-regard. Sumner’s reliance on words – he constantly scratches out his thoughts in a journal that presumably no one will read – may signal not his superior intelligence, but his naivety. To world-weary shipmate Otto (Roland Møller), reliance on language is not only useless in this context, but a signifier of unmanliness.

Jack O’Connell and Stephen Graham, The North Water (2021)
Jack O’Connell and Stephen Graham, The North Water (2021)

“Words are like toys,” he tells Sumner. “They amuse us and educate us for a time, but when it comes to manhood, we should give them up.” It’s an appealing notion to Sumner, who generally relies on laudanum to quiet his own restless intellect; and perhaps to Haigh, whose work often measures what we say against who we truly are. But if The North Water critiques empty intellectualism, it also makes the point that the animalistic pursuit of dominance is hardly a superior route through life. Embodied by Farrell as a strangely charming thug, as prone to sudden piercing insights as he is to impulsive slaughter, Henry Drax recalls one of the dangerously charismatic manchildren brought to the big screen by Paul Thomas Anderson. Like Anderson, Haigh allows his narrative to flirt with genre convention – The North Water is periodically a whodunnit, a horror and a wilderness adventure – only to fly free of it and occupy a far more awkward, pensive, existential space.

Extraordinarily effective as both narrative and spectacle, this work is also an elegy to the purity of the Arctic. Shooting on location – drama has never been made so far north before – has secured a startling authenticity of atmosphere. The images captured serve to remind us of both the beauty of the region and the fact that its commercial exploitation has by now reached a point of no return. Indifferent profiteering is part of what Haigh interrogates here – “The money does what it wants to,” whaling tycoon Baxter (Tom Courtenay) assures ship’s captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham), “it don’t care what we prefer.” But as the strange and thorny rivalries and entanglements of this drama reveal, greed for profit is only part of what drives humans to besmirch the innocent and desecrate the beautiful.