The English review – Emily Blunt’s sweeping western is
a rare, sensational masterpiece
Thu 10 Nov
2022 21.50 GMT
foremost – don’t let the moony opening of The English (“It was in the stars …
And we believed in the stars, you and I”) put you off. It is completely
unrepresentative of the six hours that follow and I want you to follow them.
(BBC Two), written and directed by Hugo Blick, is a revisionist western further
revised. We are in 1890, the last days of settlement of the old west and our
all-but-silent hero is Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee native and former
scout for the US army cavalry – doubly displaced by the settlers’ theft of his
homeland and what his people see as his betrayal of it. He is on his way to
Nebraska to stake a claim to the acres he is owed for his army service, despite
warnings that the white men in charge will never honour their debt.
is Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), who arrives at a remote hostelry in
Kansas from England, on the trail of the man she holds responsible for her
son’s death. There she finds the manager, Mr Watts (Ciarán Hinds, in the most
terrifying of all his terrifying modes), in the process of torturing Eli. She
tries to buy his safety but is beaten for her trouble. It becomes clear that
news of her vengeful intentions has gone before her and that Watts is under
instructions to kill her. The murder will be pinned on Eli.
semi-mutual rescue and at least four bloody deaths later, their fates – along
with his quest and her revenge narrative – have become firmly intertwined. As
they cross the plains in search of their different ideas of peace, the
relationship between these two lost and harrowed souls becomes deeper and more
tender in a way that avoids and transcends mere romance. By the end it is
infused with yearning, that rare and vanishing sensation in a world where
nothing is forbidden any longer, which helps give the series the edge of
grandeur the genre always seeks.
surrounding the emotional core is convoluted. I have faith that were I to map
all its parts it would make perfect sense but I would genuinely need to sit
down with a paper and pencil, and possibly a cartographer, to do so.
doesn’t really matter. What matters is that along the way we meet a plethora of
picaresque characters (special mention to Nichola McAuliffe as the murderous
Black Eyed Mog) who evoke the pitilessness of the old west and illustrate
Blick’s consideration of how many of us would remain sane, and morally sound,
in a lawless land where – for hundreds of miles at a time – no one could hear
you, or anyone who got in your way, scream.
matters is that the dehumanisation and massacres of the Native Americans, upon
whose suffering the New World was built, is not forgotten but ever present, in
Eli’s story, in the charred remains of encampments, in the cruelty of old
soldiers they meet, in the stories of the people they seek shelter with. It’s
not the wholesale corrective some will want, but you could say the frontier is
matters is that although you might lose track of the details, the plot never
becomes impenetrable or the performances less than compelling. Spencer, best
known for playing the werewolf Sam Uley in the Twilight movies, is a revelation
– strong and silent, but also seething with frustration, intelligence, grief
and the rage of a good man forced into terrible compromises. Blunt is at her
best yet, giving us a woman made brave and undauntable by resolve, powered by a
secret whose late reveal ties much of what was beginning to feel like sprawl
back tightly together again.
there’s Rafe Spall as David Melmont, with a performance just this side of
demented, and quite perfect as a truly diabolic villain – the kind who can
reach across the open plains to master the lesser fiends, the willing weak and
the good men with no choice and cast the net around an approaching nemesis and
bring her down.
script is as spare and gorgeous as the landscape. If he could have spent some
of the time afforded the plot machinations on interrogating more intensively
the myths of the Old West, the colonial impulse, the difference between
retribution and justice and the other questions his western raises, the
ambition that is everywhere in it would have been even more gloriously
realised. But it remains a sweepingly wonderful thing.
is screening on BBC Two in the UK and streaming on Amazon Prime Video in