With films like “Weekend,” “45 Years,” and “Lean on Pete,” Haigh has extracted the profound from the modest. Much as he tries, in “The North Water,” the profound does not exist. At least, not in the way Haigh wants it to.
Sumner arrives in Hull, England—a muddy, grim backwater filled with drunk, horny sailors, testy barkeeps hoisting billy clubs, and ramshackled sex workers—searching for his next job. Weeks ago, while at a hotel bar, the whaling ship magnate Baxter (Tom Courtenay) heard of his predicament: After Sumner’s discharge from fighting with the British Army in India, the young army doctor learned of a tidy inheritance left to him by his recently deceased uncle. It’s just enough land to sell and to form his own practice. Claimants have come out of the woodwork, unfortunately, tying up his estate in court. He needs a gig until his legal woes have passed, something to get him back on his feet. Despite his sincerity, his story is a load of bunk.
Even so, Baxter offers him a job on The Volunteer, helmed by the assured Captain Brownlee (Stephen Graham), supported by the conniving firstmate Cavendish (Sam Spruell). With the help of the two men, Baxter intends to sink The Volunteer, take the insurance money, and leave the fledgling whaling business behind to become an industrialist. No one else on the ship knows about the plan but them. Only Drax might have an inkling.
The problem: Henry Drax is the last man you want with or against you. He’s a cold-blooded opportunist governed by a primordial instinct to kill. A hulking mass of muscle and mangy hair, hidden underneath a bleak brown coat, when Drax walks his breathing heaves like a locomotive. Much as Farrell tries to portray this man of few words, lumbering with a heavy step, the physicality of the oversized character doesn’t come naturally to him. Whenever he walks, it looks like he’s bound to a muscle-constrained suit. Whenever he talks, there’s an eagerness to cover the thin characterization he’s been handed.
For their doomed voyage, Haigh arranges several compelling storylines. Sumner, for example, haunted by the war in India, takes the addictive drug laudanum to dull the mental anguish. For these scenes, a hazy veil washes over the composition. A cabin boy is also brutally raped onboard, an incident Sumner takes upon himself to investigate. Drax and Cavendish plot to kill Sumner, robbing him of his precious emerald-set Indian ring. And Otto (Roland Møller), an autumn-aged deckhand, has a premonition that the boat will sink, and Sumner will live inside of a bear.