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The new BBC epic The North Water is far from an easy watch. While there are beautiful shots of a Victorian whaling ship silently chartering its course through the serene expanses of the Svalbard Archipelago, it’s not long before the jarring contrast of the nihilistic plot rips through to the foreground again. The tale opens with murder; continues with rape and murder, then for some light relief, orgiastic scenes of butchering seals and the bloody slaughter of whales follow.
The herculean task of adapting Ian McGuire’s 2016 novel of the same name to screen fell to writer and director Andrew Haigh, but the challenging duty of embodying Henry Drax, the murderous psychopath who commits all these atrocities in the story, was taken on by actor Colin Farrell in his most challenging role to date.
Drax seems destined to become one of the most terrible humans ever to be portrayed on screen - we first join him in the dark alleyways of 1850’s Hull in violent action with a sex worker, then minutes later he caves in a stranger’s skull with a rock. Things only get darker from here on in, as he joins Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell) and Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham) on an ill-fated whaling ship mission, which was described by The Guardian as “a voyage into the heart of darkness”. They weren’t joking.
Farrell had a complete overhaul to pull off the barbaric harpooner, both physically and psychologically. Unsurprisingly, a character that plumbs the very depths of humanity was hard to shake off at the end of the working day. Speaking at a screening of the five-part series at the BFI, he said: “It was one of two times in my life where you couldn’t take off the costume, I couldn’t really step away from the character. It was always with me.”
Alongside bulking up (“I did weights and ate loads... I wouldn’t recommend it”) Farrell, 45, got deep into the role, from refusing to wear gloves in Arctic temperatures so that his hands bled, to contemplating exactly what drove the character to take the path he had.
“I’d never been offered a role like it,” he said. “I’ve never read a role like it where what felt like sheer, carnal brutality was fleshed out so beautifully. Objectively, there was kind of a beauty in how ugly and how broken Drax is. He’s very much an animal of his environment and I couldn’t attest to what his nature is but I think his environment is one that’s scored him so severely.”
Surely there must be some redeeming quality to this menace? Any? At all? Absolutely not, said Farrell. “I think what you have to do is try and understand objectively why things may be the way they are, but to try and understand why he is how he is and where he came from... I don’t think he has any redeeming qualities. I was going to say the redeeming quality is that he’s single minded, he lives without apology... but no, they’re not redeeming qualities. Are they admirable? Again, no.”
There has to be a tension in creating all all-time bad guy for the ages though, with a nuanced portrayal, something which director Haigh explained Farrell nailed on: “I feel like you want to be drawn to Drax, even though you’re repelled by him. He seems to have an answer. You’re pulled towards him.”
Mercifully, most of the sexual violence and attacks of the aren’t shown on camera, however the most graphic and disturbing scenes in the series arrive in the slaughter of the animals the Volunteer crew have been sent to carry out, in the hope of making some money from blubber and whale oil in their dying industry.
These scenes are nothing short of horrific, watching the men brutally kill and skin a herd of seals, the bright red smears of their blood tainting the pristine white ice. This is all leading up to the big kill: the whale. Drax leads the charge of men who attack this animal, and with a grotesque pleasure, he is showered in a waterfall of blood after he triumphantly spears the heart of the creature. On shooting these scenes - which the director was keen to point out no animals were harmed in - Farrell said: “It was brutal. Obviously there was nothing there and CGI was added in later but, at that time [in history] it was such a dark, violent time. There was so much sickness, there was so much death, and that was represented everywhere, on the streets of Hull before we leave and on the ship, these people become vessels for madness and violence. But for Drax it was just another day at the office; someone who has very little station in his life on land and then when he goes to sea he has a certain amount of status.”
He added: “It’s easy for me to idealise in the way he’s just an animal, but he does have human traits. I don’t think he understands what love is, or has any love in him. But he has desire and ego and so the seals were just another means by which we could explore his animalism. He wouldn’t give it much thought but there’s no doubt he got a good feeling from being that capable as he was in that field of ruin. The whole thing was a very dark, cruel and brutal time and epitomised by the industry in this piece.”
The series - which is thought to be the only production filmed so far north on the planet - deals with issues such as PTSD, drug addiction and man’s fight against nature and the filming of the novel impacted the cast and crew on a very deep level. Farrell explained: “It was life-changing, to be honest. Obviously you come back and your life looks exactly the same but I felt that it was a really profound [experience].
“The vastness and the beauty of the space, and the silence of the space... there was this emptiness and loneliness to the place that was very honest. It was the idea of man’s insignificance in the face of nature. It was very much that every single day. It was incredible, I kept a video diary that I sent to my kids - I needed to articulate how beautiful it was and how I’d been emboldened by my experiences up there.”
“It did something psychologically to each and every one of us,” he added. “It put us in a certain psychological space, but physiologically as well. I found my body was responding to the temperatures in a very particular way - it was like your body was constantly in survival mode.”
Farrell will next be seen as another villain - yet in a far more comic-book mode - when he appears as The Penguin in The Batman. But while this character also required another unbelievable makeover for the actor, playing the part of Henry Drax in The North Water and the entire experience has really sunk into Farrell’s bones.
“We were telling a very ugly story in a very beautiful place,” he added. “There was something in that contrast or contradiction that was very powerful.”
The North Water airs on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on 10 September
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