It is safe to say that Westerns are having another moment on TV and in film. From the expanding “Yellowstone” universe to “The Power of the Dog,” there is renewed interest in this classic genre. Not that the wild west has ever truly gone away, but the range of stories being told reveals the breadth of the open range. Enter British writer-director Hugo Blick (“The Honourable Woman,” “Black Earth Rising”) with a thrilling six-part limited series, “The English,” starring Emily Blunt as aristocratic Englishwoman Lady Cornelia Locke and Chaske Spencer playing a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout Eli Whipp.
Early on, it becomes clear that this story of revenge and staking a claim on identity are not mutually exclusive. The exploration of these goals is an intimate experience with an expansive backdrop. Set primarily in 1890 (flashbacks reveal nuggets of information throughout), “The English” tackles a period when venturing across middle America was a fraught and often bloody experience.
It is a tale as old as time, but Blick isn’t simply regurgitating an overdone vision of the past. Instead, “The English” offers a nuanced depiction that conforms to and contradicts expectations of new frontiers, gunslingers, and the deep wounds of this period. The opening narration is at odds with a script that is often economical in its use of dialogue but don’t let this overt explanation put you off. The title’s meaning is a spiderweb of stolen land, dreams built of the blood of others, and the long-lasting damage caused by so-called pioneers.
When Cornelia steps out of her carriage early in the first episode dressed in an ultra-feminine candy-colored pink frock, alarm bells start ringing that this show will descend into a damsel-in-distress narrative. Having seen “The Honourable Woman” and “Black Earth Rising,” there is a sense that the material wouldn’t lean into this trope, and thankfully, there is more to Cornelia than a trunk full of fancy gowns.
Costume designer Phoebe de Gaye evocatively charts Cornelia’s evolution through color, texture, and shape, starting with this fish-out-of-water high society get-up before shifting to deeper burgundy with masculine silhouette flourishes. Adapting to this harsh environment is a crash course into surviving various threats from being a woman riding alongside a Native American man. Thankfully, the story doesn’t wildly swing too far in the other direction into a white savior narrative (even if it does hover in this zone on a couple of occasions).
Whereas Cornelia has ventured from England to avenge her son’s death, Eli is heading to a place he calls home—or at least, once called home. Now that he is no longer in the US army, he is looking for peace and quiet, which involves overcoming personal demons and overt racism. Guilt is hard to shake as Eli fought for a country that has spilled the blood of many Native Americans. Eli is an outsider who is viewed suspiciously by everyone he encounters, and his quest is as much about reclaiming land as it is about his identity. Serving in the army is a form of protection, and his veteran status doesn’t afford the same benefits. Now he is at risk of prejudice that could easily lead to his death.
In the last couple of years, there has been a long overdue uptick in TV shows centering Native American characters and starring Indigenous talent, such as “Reservation Dogs,” “Dark Winds,” and the canceled-too-soon “Rutherford Falls.” Blick is the sole credited writer on “The English,” but a research and consultation collaboration ensures the titular perspective is not the only one represented. Blick sent the completed scripts to scripts to IllumiNative CEO Crystal Echo Hawk. From here, the Native woman-led racial and social justice organization introduced Blick to representatives of the Pawnee and Cheyenne Nations, who shared cultural and military history details. Eli is far from the only Indigenous character, and there is a clear intention to show an array of Native American characters and their methods to survive and co-exist.
A chance meeting puts Eli and Cornelia on a shared path that grows over the expansive plains. Resistance and trepidation exist on both sides, but they quickly realize that loss is something that binds them. Spencer is magnetic in this role as the reluctant navigator whose protective walls are penetrated. Blick’s script isn’t dialogue-heavy, but it immediately grabs you whenever Eli expands on his past or current philosophy.
Meanwhile, Cornelia is on the chattier side, but she isn’t simply a simpering aristocrat out of her depth, looking for a man to save her. Blunt deftly portrays strength coupled with the grief that runs through her veins. The surprise on her face when she overcomes obstacles is a reminder that Cornelia isn’t superhuman and Blunt excels at responding to the extremes of this environment. Quieter highlights of this journey include discussing the stars and astrology (Cornelia is a Scorpio), with a sky above acting as a free light show.
Cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer captures wide open spaces, and at no point does the viewer ever tire of seeing these characters on horseback with the vast landscape that frames them. Back-lit by the sun offers repeated stunning imagery, and the mix of piercing blues, earthy greens, and browns in the final episode is particularly evocative. Spain doubles for the American West due to COVID travel restrictions at the time of production, as Blick originally intended to shoot in the United States. “The English” is far from the first time the European country has stood in for states like Wyoming, and Blick follows a long Spaghetti Western tradition.
It is a production that pulls you into its aesthetic from the first moment you see the evocative title sequence by Scatterlight Studios, which also clues you into how Federico Jusid’s score will add to the grand sweeping scale. Jusid taps into the spirit of legendary composer Ennio Morricone without feeling derivative or like he is merely mimicking the master of this genre. Blick incorporates tracks by singers like Rodriguez and Melanie that are obviously not accurate to the era but add to the emotional tone. It is a masterclass in mixing contemporary elements with a period piece without pulling you out of the setting.
Violence and bloodshed are part of the fabric of this landscape, and Blick doesn’t shy away from showing the results of these interactions. However, at no point does it feel gratuitous, and some of the most horrifying scenes take place off-screen. The new town of Hoxem, Wyoming, is central to another series of disturbing crimes that local sheriff Robert Marshall (Stephen Rea) is investigating. The sparseness of these regions adds to the foreboding atmosphere as new buildings look out of place against the dusty backdrop—production designer Chris Roope is another who deserves plaudits for his attention to detail.
Trying to find justice in a place like this is a tall task, and this is not a simple case of the good guys (or white hats) stopping the bad. Yes, there are clear heroes and villains, but an array of colorful characters also occupies the middle area. There is no shade of gray about Rafe Spall as David Melmont, and the actor is having a ball as one of the shady figures out to take what he can get—no matter the human cost. Dressing the part in garments that get more audacious as the series progresses, Spall cranks up the villainy while offering a taste of the kind of accent Tom Hardy delivers in “Peaky Blinders.”
The supporting cast includes recognizable figures like Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds, which speaks to the depths of the character actors who feature, and it is hard to find fault in any of the performances. There are some slightly contrived overlapping moments and one particular narrative choice I found unnecessary. Still, on the whole, Blick’s intertwined story of the brutality and redemptive possibilities of the American West nearing the turn of the century is a gripping and memorable adventure. [A-]
“The English” debuts on Prime Video on November 11.