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As presented in Hugo Blick’s new Amazon limited series The English, the Old West was a dangerous place: a collection of breathtaking vistas connected by trauma from horrifying massacres, in which disease-ridden, testicle-eating outlaws sold their services to the highest bidder and the only currency more valuable than acreage was revenge. No place for a woman, but no place for a man either.
In short, The English is a revisionist Western, but the revision focuses on brutality in a way countless revisionist Westerns have done before — which may well be the series’ point. If Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood and their myriad imitators built a body of work tweaking the artificiality of the John Ford Western, Blick has built his series tweaking the artificiality of the revisionist Western. It’s all iconic and it’s all an artistic construct, The English seems to be saying, and if that sounds convoluted to you, you’re not exactly wrong.
The English is a beautifully shot exercise that’s always right on the border of saying something brilliant, only to more frequently settle for being a picaresque assembly of bizarre characters, bloody adventures and satisfyingly badass lead performances from Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer.
Blunt plays Cornelia Locke, a British aristocrat who arrives in the New World circa 1890 with trunks of regionally inappropriate gowns, bags of cash and one goal: avenging the death of her son. At a remote outpost on the Kansas plains, it becomes clear that Cornelia’s arrival and her mission have been anticipated by some powerful and threatening forces (embodied by Ciaran Hinds, in exceptionally supercilious form).
Also present in that outpost, by luck or by cosmic design, is Eli Whipp (Spencer), a Pawnee-born former member of the US Army cavalry. The white folks look at Eli as a Native. The Natives look at Eli as white. All Eli wants is to reclaim the property that was his birthright.
Cornelia and Eli’s futures are intertwined, and their pasts are connected as well; while the Old West is vast, it’s a small world.
With 2014’s The Honourable Woman and 2018’s Black Earth Rising, Blick has carved out an auteur’s reputation — he writes and directs every episode of his shows — telling fish-out-of-water stories built around strong women navigating colonialist spaces. He uses genre trappings — those past two shows were political thrillers — to tell stories that initially seem simple and then become too confusing for their own good. The ideas are always big. The performances are always exceptional. Consistency, though, is rarely a strength.
The English is, at heart, a clear-cut tale of revenge, and I loved the simplicity of the first two episodes. I would watch hours of Blunt and Hinds sitting opposite each other noshing on prairie oysters and making insinuations of violence. Ditto Blunt and Spencer sitting under the stars, each feeling out the other’s motivations and mettle. Then the show has to go and become pointlessly circuitous for two episodes, as a combination of interchangeable actors obscured by period facial hair, unplaceable accents and purposeless time jumping make the story hazy for no good reason.
There’s a strong rebound in the closing episodes, which rise to a level of Grand Guignol grotesquerie as the long-promised revenge comes to a head. But when Blick reaches his elegiac conclusive thoughts on the genre’s mixture of affectation and authenticity, you may wish, as I did, that the middle of the season had had more of that and less twistiness-for-the-sake-of-twistiness.
Even in its evasive moments, The English is stunning to look at, and you can see Blick’s cinematic allusions at every turn. Sometimes it’s just nods to the genre at large, in the countless scenes that play out against widescreen tableaus — the dawn or gloaming sky taking up most of the frame — or the low-angle shots of heroes or villains blocking out the sun. But Blick is more specific as well, and you can work your way down an homage checklist that surely features Ford, Eastwood, Nicolas Roeg, Powell & Pressburger and, in the gorier moments of the climax, a dash of Dario Argento.
Cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer shoots the heck out of the Spanish locations, meant to evoke, not impersonate, the Old West mystique. As in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, foreign terrain stands in for the most American of geography, paralleling how Ford would use Monument Valley as a stand-in for the totality of The West.
You don’t need to share Blick’s checklist to get caught up in the camera’s careful compositions or the muscular and erudite dialogue. But appreciating The English on referential terms helps distract from a sense of actual history that’s a little superficial and an exploration of Indigenous cultures that improves on that of the traditional Western without marking a true corrective in the way that Reservation Dogs or Dark Winds have recently done.
Blunt and Spencer offer ample pleasures of their own. Blunt, already a veteran action hero, wields rifles and a rapier wit and does it all in Phoebe De Gaye’s stylishly constraining costumes. Spencer swaggers confidently as the Eastwood/John Wayne archetype with a soulful, outsider twist. Together, they have a pleasing chemistry, without the series forcing it to necessarily be romantic.
Hinds, Toby Jones, Gary Farmer and Nichola McAuliffe, as an instantly iconic baddie named Black Eyed Mog, are among the exceptional actors recruited to drop in for a scene or two, lend incalculable value, and depart. Sticking around a little longer is Rafe Spall, with a dandy’s wardrobe, a marble-mouthed working-class accent and a level of operatic villainy that fits with the show’s home-stretch.
The nagging sense that the sloppy middle prevents the series from being something truly special by its heightened and emotional end is a minor disappointment. But its’ breadth, ambition and technical virtuosity make it well worth seeking out nevertheless.
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