Colin Farrell – boozy, bearded and brawling – is in his element

Review: The Irish actor brings a Ronnie Drew voice and Dumbledore beard to The North Water

The North Water: Colin Farrell as the aggressively cartoonish Drax. Photograph: Nick Wall/See-Saw/BBC

The North Water: Colin Farrell as the aggressively cartoonish Drax. Photograph: Nick Wall/See-Saw/BBC

 

Received wisdom tells us that Colin Farrell long ago turned his back on the Hollywood A-list to become a character actor seeking out weird and interesting roles. “Weird and interesting” is one way of describing Henry Drax, the Dub with a club whom he portrays in Andrew Haigh’s 19th-century Arctic thriller (and chiller) The North Water (BBC Two, Friday, 9.30pm).

But there’s something aggressively cartoonish and exaggerated about Drax, who speaks like a Hammer Horror Ronnie Drew and whose hobbies include brawling in bars and biffing adorable seals over the head. If you feel as if you’ve seen this character before, maybe you have. He’s the gritty prestige-TV answer to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Captain Jack Harrow, if you will.

Colin Farrell with a Dumbledore beard clubbing seals to death was never going to be not watchable. And around this searing if hokey performance Haigh has constructed a carefully weighted meditation on savagery, civilisation and the corrupting taint of empire.

Colin Farrell’s Drax is introduced in flagrante with a prostitute and is soon toddling around 1850s Hull scoring free drinks off barflies

It is also a late entry in the genre of 19th-century men going mad in the Arctic (see this summer’s The Terror). As the story opens, in 1859, Drax and his fellow whalers are about to sail north on the hunt for blubber. (Whether they need to extract this from huge marine mammals or cutesy seals, they’re not fussy.)

Trailer - The North Water

But there is more to the journey than meets the eye. The ship’s captain, Arthur Brownlee (Stephen Graham, looking a dead ringer for the former New Order bassist Peter Hook) has been tasked with coming home with something other than whale oil and sea-mammal fat.

Farrell’s Drax is introduced in flagrante with a prostitute and is soon toddling around 1850s Hull scoring free drinks off barflies. His spiritual opposite is Jack O’Connell’s ship’s surgeon, Patrick Sumner, who, like Drax, is Irish. Alas, his accent has been taken from him: he was raised largely in England following the loss of his family farm in the west.

It is surely a conscious choice for Haigh, adapting Ian McGuire’s 2016 novel, to make the two central characters Irish. Drax, a harpoonist by trade, is violent yet seems to follow an unspoken code of honour. Sumner, by contrast, is well spoken and bookish – but has secrets in his past centred around imperial escapades in India. The series asks us to ponder who is truly the civilising force, the madman with the axe or the genteel despoiler of the Raj?

Haigh evokes the muck and misanthropy of the 19th century. You can almost smell the candle smoke,the cheap whiskey, the rising paranoia as things go awry out on the ice. It feels fitting, meanwhile, that Sumner, the nominal hero, should hail from Castlebar. The North Water crosses the Atlantic the week another Castlebar native, Sally Rooney, conquers the zeitgeist with her new novel. And it precedes Mayo’s latest opportunity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in an All-Ireland final.

Perhaps this aligning of the stars augers well for Mayo’s chances at Croke Park. One person who has certainly come up trumps is Farrell, in his element as the over-the-top Drax. Boozy, bearded and brawling, his hysterical harpoonist is clearly having a whale of a time.

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