Of Whales and Men: Navigating The North Water

Call me curious. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely, but it must have been back in the ’70s or early ’80s – I embarked on what might have been a major odyssey: reading Moby-Dick. I didn’t get very far. But now I’m giving it another try. That’s why you can call me curious. Either curious as in ‘strange’ (is it odd for someone who gave up on the book decades ago to make another attempt now?), or curious as in wanting to discover why Melville’s long, allusive, enigmatic book is considered a masterpiece. (I know the story from John Huston’s film, but that’s not the same thing.)

Why this curiosity now? What led me to take on, again and belatedly, the challenge of this literary Leviathan? Well, I just watched a recent television series (I don’t watch many and I am not prone to writing about them), and I found it so enjoyable, engrossing, stimulating and (despite its historical setting) relevant to the here and now that it made me want to plunge again into the spectacular but unsettling world which both it and Melville portray. The five episodes of The North Water, written and directed by Andrew Haigh from a novel by Ian McGuire, are in my opinion terrific… again in both senses of the word.

The North Water follows a whaling expedition of the late 1850s (the decade when Melville’s novel was published) which for reasons best known (or not) to himself is joined by former military surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell). The trip from Britain to the remote and ice-bound seas of the Canadian Arctic would be difficult and dangerous enough in any circumstances, but Sumner has to deal not only with his own troubled history and current addiction, not to mention his outsider status on the boat as ‘an intellectual’; there are also the not inconsiderable problems of The Volunteer’s wealthy owner Baxter (Tom Courtenay) having plans of his own for the ship, and of a crew that includes among its very motley number an indecisive captain (Stephen Graham), a first mate (Sam Spruell) complicit in Baxter’s murky project, and the mate’s psychopathic mate, harpoonist Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), whom we first encounter in the dark alleys of Hull perpetrating horrific punishment on someone who refused to buy him a drink. Dark? As the series proceeds, despite the sometimes blinding Arctic light, things get darker. Far darker.

Jack O’Connell as Patrick Sumner

There is a dependably fine and perceptive review of The North Water in Sight & Sound by Hannah McGill, but I’d like to take a different tack. She looks at it, understandably, as a piece not only by Haigh (whose movies Weekend and 45 Years impressed me enormously) and as film or TV. My take here is more personal: a look at why The North Water resonated with me so deeply. Yes, it has uniformly excellent performances (Farrell, especially, is superb), highly expressive images courtesy of Nicolas Bolduc and inventive, evocative sound design; moreover, it benefits astonishingly from having largely been shot on location (little if any film or television has been shot so far north). But the series touched me both for those and for other reasons.

The riches of The North Water got me thinking about a great many evocations, in different mediums and styles, of the sea and the wilderness, and of the likewise turbulent and unfathomable aspects of human nature. I love this sort of stuff (just as I’ve always been fascinated by deserts and the way they are represented in the arts). In cinema, besides Huston’s Moby-Dick, there was Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd (and, also referencing Melville’s novella, Claire Denis’ Beau travail), not to mention Arctic epics like Nick Ray’s The Savage Innocents and Zacharias Kunuk’s Atarnajuat: The Fast Runner and stormy seafaring dramas like Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf and John Farrow’s Two Years Before the Mast (adaptations, respectively, of Jack London and Richard Henry Dana). In poetry, we have The Rime of the Ancient Marriner; in painting, pictures by Turner and others; in classical music, operas like Britten’s Billy Budd and Peter Grimes, and orchestral pieces too many to mention; in rock, quite a few songs by Procol Harum, most memorably on the albums A Salty Dog and Home. (Whaling Stories, on the latter, is an especially eloquent and nightmarish evocation of the scale, strangeness and sinister aspects of whaling; here, for musically intrepid fans of 70s rock, is a live version.) Common and key to many of these various narratives is a sense of the fragility of ‘civilisation’; not only of how small, vulnerable and ephemeral humans are compared to the vastness of the ocean and the wilderness, but also of how man himself may all too easily become wild, irrational, bestial. I use ‘man’ here rather than ‘humans’ since these tales, set on ships in the past, tend to focus primarily on groups of men brought together by the need for work, escape or something more obscure; they frequently, then, explore and critique differing notions of masculinity, and in this matter The North Face is certainly no exception. 

Indeed, the series succeeds on many levels: besides providing riveting, suspenseful drama, it concerns itself with matters of faith, doubt, superstition and morality; with rationality and impulse, nature and nurture, the physical and the metaphysical, the political and the personal, ecology and existentialism. Class, sexuality, nationality, wealth, strength and stamina are seen as crucial factors in the establishment of status, power and influence. Though compassion may be found in unexpected places, hypocrisy, avarice, corruption, prejudice and violence are rife. In this respect, though its story takes place more than a century and a half ago, The North Water is undoubtedly a chilling reflection of the present – and, given its geographical setting, an ominous warning about the future.  In short, it has intelligence, substance and power. It even drove me back to Moby-Dick.

Colin Farrell as Henry Drax

The North Water is available on BBC iPlayer.

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