It’s a problem that, a century ago, anyone on a ship in the Arctic Circle just didn’t have to worry about: where is all the ice? Yet this was the unexpected stumbling block faced by the film-makers of a forthcoming BBC thriller set in the Arctic in the 1850s.

The North Water is an epic five-part adventure about an ill-fated 19th-century whaling expedition into the Arctic. In the pursuit of realism, its producers realised that they could not rely on special effects. Nor would shooting it in a studio tank or off the coast of Britain achieve the authenticity of filming in the Arctic, however extreme the conditions and challenges.

But, in travelling north to shoot the drama in a wilderness of pack ice, they ended up – thanks to the effects of global heating – just 22 miles away from the north pole.

“We had to keep going further and further north,” Hakan Kousetta, one of the executive producers, told the Observer. “It was quite shocking to realise how far we had to go. It really is like turning up to a desert and finding out there is not enough sand.”

He added: “We had made assumptions about where you’d find ice in the Arctic Circle. It turned out you have to keep going north to very extreme locations when, just a few years ago, you didn’t have to. We were filming in incredible places that look almost unreal.”

The North Water is a brutal story of a disgraced ex-army surgeon, who becomes a ship’s doctor on a vessel with a murderous psychopath on board, played by Jack O’Connell and Colin Farrell respectively. It is based on Ian McGuire’s acclaimed novel, about which the Observer reviewer wrote in 2017: “I have never read a novel that has unsettled me to this degree. It is relentless in its examination of life aboard an English whaling boat in 1852 – though it is difficult to understand why anybody would board this ship, bound for the Arctic, in the first place. When the surrounding waters freeze for hundreds of days on end, conditions worsen: the ship becomes a hotbed of sodomy, murder, drink and theft.”

Colin Farrell as the brutish harpooner Henry Drax in The North Water.
Colin Farrell as the brutish harpooner Henry Drax in The North Water. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC Studios/AMC

It has been adapted for the screen and directed by Andrew Haigh, who, inspired by McGuire’s depiction of the brutal beauty of the Arctic, said: “I wanted us to feel the biting wind, the bitter cold. I wanted to capture that fear that comes from being so far from civilisation.” And, as he recalled: “All of us were terrified at times.”

Filming in such an extreme environment over four weeks was fraught with danger. Rifles were on hand to scare away approaching polar bears. Cast and crew battled sea sickness and frozen fingers and toes. Each morning, they searched for sea ice strong enough to work on, recreating a whale-hunt in a remote glacier bay and a seal-hunt on a moving ice-floe. In the pack ice, they had sets that spun 180 degrees in the night, and others that broke up three hours into filming.

The film-makers cannot say for certain that they travelled so far north because of the climate crisis, but it is a well-documented fact that one effect of a heating planet has been thegradual retreat of ice in the Arctic. Last year, the annual Arctic report card issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) showed that in 2020 the Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest summer extent in the 42-year satellite record.

Executive producer Jamie Laurenson noted that they also had to go further north in search of pack ice because they were shooting in September: “If you want ice, you go later, but you wouldn’t get the light conditions right and it would be too cold for people to work.”

He also said that, while filming in the Arctic increased production costs, the imagery “feels and looks real. The performances you get from actors who are actually standing in water in the cold, all those things are intangible but profound in terms of the effect they have on the show.” Farrell said: “The environment did so much for us. It instantly created a sense of tension and pressure in your body. Physiologically, your body is responding in a way and with an aggression never shown before – because it has never been in an environment like that before.”

While the Hollywood Reporter noted that “some of the visuals of frozen, barren nature are jaw-dropping”, Variety wrote that the drama “creates a sense of chilliness that will permeate one’s bones on even the hottest summer night”.

The North Water was commissioned by the BBC and made by See-Saw Films for BBC Two and iPlayer, and will be available this autumn. Iain Canning, managing director of See-Saw Films – whose previous productions include the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech – said: “The North Water is a love letter to the Arctic. We wanted to capture the beauty of the area and believe it needs to be protected.”

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