Though it’s plenty punishing, AMC Plus’ new limited series “The North Water” has something richly escapist about it: The show, set on a whaling ship in the 1850s and shot within the Arctic Circle, creates a sense of chilliness that will permeate one’s bones on even the hottest summer night.
In this adaptation of Ian McGuire’s historical-fiction novel, Jack O’Connell plays Patrick Sumner, a British army surgeon running from his past; he signs on to be a doctor on a ship sailing north. What he doesn’t realize is that the ship houses not just scoundrels but the personification of evil. Henry Drax, played by Colin Farrell in a turn that’s outright feral, has some fundamental empathy or humanity missing, and fills that hole with all sorts of savage appetites. He sums it up by telling Sumner, “I’m a man like any other … give or take,” laughing mirthlessly. A murder on board sends suspicions in every direction, all while a plan agreed to by the feckless captain (Stephen Graham) and the ship’s avaricious owner (Tom Courtenay) has set the crew on an accursed secret mission.
This voyage finds its way to truly striking seascapes, and “The North Water,” directed by the supremely talented Andrew Haigh, draws a contrast between the vastness of the natural world and the vulnerability of man. In one scene that recalls the visual ambition of “The Revenant,” Sumner gets lost tracking a bear; we feel, viscerally, his misery at the fact that his life has taken him so far off course. As a traveler confronting his own feelings of waywardness against a landscape that cares little for him, O’Connell is excellent; Farrell is too, and — crucially — does not come to dominate the proceedings. He’s used sparingly enough to never set the series off balance; for all the outsizedness of Farrell’s performance, he credibly exists within a series full of smaller, more venal forms of villainy.
The show, to be distributed internationally by BBC Studios, effectively conjures a bygone world — both in its visual power and in its treatment of the past as rougher, with brutality that much closer to the surface. There are moments when its malice can seem slightly like a put-on: Opening the series with an Arthur Schopenhauer quote on-screen about how “the world is hell” and men are both tormented and tormentors feels a touch affected. Following it with the sounds of Farrell’s character rutting in the dark only heightens that sense. But, by the strength of its storytelling, the show eventually earns its darkest flourishes; it adds depth and real heft to its vision of the past as a land of monsters. In all, “The North Water” serves as a bracing plunge into inhumanity that’ll stick with you after its running time melts away.
“The North Water” premieres on AMC Plus Thursday, July 15.