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In late 2019, the writer and director Andrew Haigh found himself on a boat off the Svalbard archipelago, about halfway between the northern edge of Norway and the North Pole, having a dark thought. On board with him were a production crew and a bunch of actors, some of them really quite famous (Jack O’Connell, Stephen Graham), and one of them extremely famous (Colin Farrell). They would be spending the next few weeks on the Arctic Ocean journeying up into the polar ice floes in order to film The North Water, a five-part TV drama about a doomed whaling voyage.
“I remember on the first night we sailed up the coast of Svalbard it was pretty rough weather. We’re all in our cabins, the sea was raging a bit, and the doctor had given us all medication to help us with seasickness. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a disaster,’” says the Yorkshire-born Haigh, 48, on a video call from Los Angeles, where he and his partner, the writer Andy Morwood, have been living for a year and a bit. “I was terrified people would fall out, there would be fights, people would get thrown overboard. But everyone came together. Everyone bonded through the adversity, I suppose, of the situation. Through the puking.”
If the conditions of filming weren’t tough enough (although Graham did post a picture when they wrapped of himself and some cast-mates sitting in a hot tub on deck with the caption: “Had a whale of a time!!”), there was also the challenging nature of the material to consider. Adapted by Haigh from Ian McGuire’s book of the same name, The North Water is set aboard the not-so-good-ship Volunteer during the last gasp of Hull’s whaling industry, when men desperate enough to take on such bloody, dangerous work were exploited by richer men happy to let them risk their lives doing it. Technically you could call it a costume drama — it’s set in the late 1850s — but also, in certain conventional senses, it isn’t.
“We all know the kind of people who are in most period dramas,” says Haigh, who got his start in the film industry as an assistant editor on films including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, before going on to direct his 2011 breakthrough feature film, Weekend. “This is not a story about upper-class British men on ships. These are not men trying to find the Northwest Passage. This is a working ship with working-class men. These men are going to kill whales to earn money, to leave the so-called civilised world behind and head out into the wastelands of the Arctic to find their purpose. I find that fascinating, like a kind of tinderbox of masculinity.”
The plot of The North Water is driven by two central figures: Patrick Sumner, an effete doctor with a murky past, played by O’Connell, and a hairy beast of a harpooner called Henry Drax, played by a bulked-up Farrell (“Colin was eating, like, eight breakfasts”) with a murky past, present and, one suspects, future. As the series progresses, Sumner starts to realise that Drax, to whom Farrell can’t help but bring a devilish likeability, is capable of truly despicable acts.
“It’s almost like there’s some strange, twisted love story between them,” says Haigh. “That’s how I see it anyway. It’s not necessarily sexual, but there is an attraction.”
Haigh’s past work has often dealt with the push and pull of intimacy. Weekend, for which he was named British Breakthrough Film-maker at the 2012 London Critics’ Circle Film Awards, documented a tender, life-changing fling between two young men in Nottingham. His 2015 film 45 Years, which earned a raft of awards for its stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, explored secrets emerging in the twilight of a long marriage. His films tend to be understated and quietly moving. (He’s also done TV before, co-creating the sweetly charming HBO dramedy Looking, about young gay guys in San Francisco.)
There’s nothing immediately understated about The North Water. In an unforgettable sequence that concludes the first episode, the crew of the Volunteer set off across the floes to find seals. They wear rudimentary sunglasses and carry planks with spikes. Afterwards, the ice is spotted with dark patches of blood. Even though obviously no real seals were harmed (“it’s a secret mixture of CGI, prosthetics…”) it is a tough watch.
“I want you to feel it,” says Haigh. “Because it is a violent, horrendous thing to be doing, clubbing seals. I want you to feel that these men are enjoying the killing of these animals, and understand why they are doing it, which is the truth of what happened, but also that this is a terribly sad thing to be done to the natural world.”
The new show, with its devilish men and dead whales and clubbed seals, could feel like
something of a departure for Haigh. “It does in a way,” he says, “but I feel like all the characters I’ve ever dealt with are pretty similar: they’re trying to work out intellectually who they want to be, and that ambition is scuppered by something more primal within them that can make a mess of things. The truth is this is a story about not just men but about all of us. We have a tendency to want more: a desperate need to be better than our neighbour, to be bigger, to be a captain, to be whatever it is. It seems to speak to who we are as people, because let’s face it, we’re pretty gross.”
He delivers this condemnation of the human race in a most pleasant way, enhanced by the fact that his time in America has given his British accent a hopeful, rising inflection. Perhaps it gets the better of him. “I have a relatively pessimistic view of the world, I always have done,” he says, not uncheerily. “But I think even faced with intense suffering and struggle, you can find compassion, you can find intimacy. And I feel like finding intimacy and compassion within the world is what makes it worthwhile.”
The North Water is on BBC2 from 10 September
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