SERIES REVIEW – Writer-director Hugo Blick’s western stars Emily Blunt and Indian-born Chaske Spencer. The English is about an English noblewoman on a ruthless quest for revenge in the Wild West, while a romantic entanglement develops between her and the other Indian protagonist. Writer-director Hugo Blick brings America’s brutal environment to the fore in a professionally written, vastly entertaining, and at once extremely violent and romantic six-part western series.
It’s 1890, the obscure era when the Wild West was in the final stages of taming. Cornelia Locke (Blunt) is an English noblewoman who has come to America to seek revenge on the man she blames for her son’s death. Her path crosses that of Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee Indian war veteran of the US Army who has often had to take up arms against other Native Americans. She wants revenge, while he just wants to claim a piece of land that is his – even though everyone he meets warns him that the white man won’t actually give it to him. So they travel together; sometimes, he rescues her, sometimes vice versa, while the seemingly frail Cornelia is surprisingly adept with a rifle, knife, and bow.
Once again, Emily Blunt is badass, as usual
And the cast is not to be complained about. Emily Blunt plays Lady Cornelia Locke, an English aristocrat who arrives in America with vengeful plans. Cornelia’s son has died (it’s unclear how), and she follows those she holds responsible. Unfortunately, they are on to him, as the young woman soon learns bitterly. Cornelia’s courage is tested by a series of extraordinary characters, played by excellent character actors, demonstrating their talents through witty dialogue and often cruel events.
Of course, the strong-willed female noblewoman, played by Emily Blunt, is still at the center of it all. As the menacing Mr. Watts (Ciaran Hinds) – the first of many deadly threats that stand between Cornelia and her ultimate target – puts it, “Not quite the woman I expected.” Of course, Blunt’s steely, the tough side will come as less of a surprise to those who saw her in the first Sicario, The Edge of Tomorrow, Two Voices Without Voices, and Jungle Tour, among others, but it’s still a character she plays incredibly well.
Chaske Spencer is much less famous (perhaps best known for his role as Sam Uly in the Twilight films), but he matches his partner in physical presence and quiet intensity. He is also a great actor and has an excellent feel for his character. The film also stars several British and Irish actors, including Toby Jones, veteran actor Steven Rea, and Rafe Spall.
Writer-director Hugo Blick (“The Venerable Woman”) continues to use traditional elements of the genre, and his six-part HBO Max series centers on a rhapsodic love story with plenty of picturesque sunny scenes of vast prairies. But the particular and well-contained, well-plotted intellectual concept of The English makes this limited series stand out from the rest. Blick’s story succeeds consistently not by drawing painful parallels between past and present but by a clever acknowledgment of the savagery that has permanently been embedded in America’s identity.
It begins with a roughly life-threatening situation for both characters
The six-part series opens with a grippingly suspenseful episode in which the two main characters, Whipp and Cornelia, are put in a very roughly life-threatening situation. Of course, we won’t spoil the outcome, but suffice it to say that after a brief separation, Whipp’s path soon crosses that of Cornelia. She claims that this is ‘magic’ – a kind of fate brought about by necessity and mutual understanding between two good souls in a land of evil souls. How they come apart and are brought back together forms the vague, mysterious middle section of an otherwise really entertaining and exciting nearly six hours (less because most episodes are roughly 50 minutes long). (I regularly found myself jumping back and forth just to make sense of things – a strange feeling for a series with an easy-to-understand introduction and themes so clear as to be almost over the top.) At times, the English overcomplicate the plot, which, combined with Blick’s engrossing, well-written dialogue, often bogs down an otherwise exciting chase.
But what we lack in efficiency, the series makes up for in spirit. Blunt and Spencer create real, flesh-and-blood characters from archetypes. The man is a noble gunfighter hunting where a white war hero would be glorified, the woman a frilly-clad young noblewoman bent on revenge but with a heart of gold. Like the land on which it is set, The English is built on contradictions. To describe it as a rollicking romp would not be far from the truth, but it often fails to prepare the viewer for the heartbreaking twists and turns.
Blick’s latest is far from the first revisionist western to suggest that the Wild West was not as clean and orderly as the genre’s classics first portrayed it, nor does it say anything particularly profound by outlining the deep roots of violence in a country built by fleeing immigrants (and persecuted natives).
And yet, these ideas still pack a punch. In the past few years of pandemic denial and political division, COVID body counts, and regular school shootings, many “modern aristocrats” have wondered where American savagery and selfishness come from, why there is a tacit acceptance that so many seemingly avoidable deaths occur in the land of the free. Blick’s explanation is nestled between graceful aesthetics, ruthless bloodlust, and overwhelming romanticism. The English at least outline one theory: that bloodshed is a true American habit, and they think they can leave it behind.
Overall, The English is a great western series, full of excitement, romance, great acting, and a fascinating, often harrowing story. There are some slightly contrived overlaps, and I found a particular narrative decision unnecessary. Still, Blick’s intertwining story of the brutality and redemptive possibilities of the American West at the turn of the century is a captivating and memorable adventure.