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Emily Blunt’s Ultra-Violent Western ‘The English’ Tells How the West Was Lost

Writer-director Hugo Blick foregrounds America's brutal foundation in a sharply written, largely entertaining, and extremely violent romance.

The English Amazon Prime Video Emily Blunt

Emily Blunt in “The English”

Diego Lopez Calvin / Prime Video

If many a Western captures the sweeping romance of America’s land rush — idealizing a time when seizing one’s future involved planting a literal flag — then “The English” serves as a bright red rebuttal; a revisionist take among the modern era’s various reconsiderations, this time emphasizing the tears, sweat, and oh-so-much-blood required to reach the dream awaiting colonizers somewhere west of the Mississippi.

Writer-director Hugo Blick (“The Honorable Woman”) still embraces traditional elements of the genre, centering his six-part Prime Video series around a rhapsodic love story and capturing plenty of vast prairies in picturesque, sun-kissed shots. But it’s the edge carved into every corner of “The English” that helps the limited series stand out. From the cutting dialogue to its jagged mystery, Blick’s latest story finds consistent success not by drawing pained parallels between past and present but by astutely acknowledging the ferocity ingrained in America’s identity all along.

The cast is also quite good. Emily Blunt produces and plays Lady Cornelia Locke, an aristocrat from England who arrives in America seeking revenge. Her son has died (under undisclosed circumstances), and she’s tracked those she deems responsible to these parts. Unfortunately, they’ve tracked her as well. Cornelia’s mettle is tested (and flaunted, as any action series featuring Blunt’s intimidating talents should) by a procession of colorful characters played by accomplished character actors, all happy to sink their teeth into spirited dialogue and mythic personalities.

Ciarán Hinds makes for a beguiling, tone-setting first opponent: “There are many who can welcome you to the real America,” Mr. Watts (Hinds) says, “but only one who can truly mean it.” His greeting includes a snazzy green vest, the signature piece of a formal three-piece suit (one of many striking ensembles made by costumer Phoebe De Gaye); a theatrical gesture toward the panoramic vistas in the distance (captured both in stark remove and lush detail by cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer); and courteous responses to her curt inquiries… all until he knocks her out cold in an attempt to steal everything she’s carried over land and sea.

This marks a fitting introduction for Cornelia to America and audiences to the series, as Blick builds early episodes around the alluring, aforementioned formal elements and, more generally, alternating moments of debonair discussions and shocking violence. Cornelia and Watts’ dinner table dialogue crackles with wit. Each actor speaks with infectious confidence and curiosity, and you’ll be chuckling along with them until the next surprise smack reminds you what’s at stake — and who they really are. Toby Jones, Stephen Rea, and Tom Hughes each get their time to shine, but respect must be paid to Rafe Spall for his all-in heel turn. Sporting a helmet-like bowler and speaking in a beefed-up Cockney accent, the late-arriving “Trying” star steadily builds a towering presence that would be too big for nearly any other show. Here, though, he’s just right — a boss you love to hate and hate to love, blending brutish charm and unspeakable savagery into an anti-gentleman who’s still able to flourish in a country that rewards such behavior, so long as a white man embodies them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back when Mr. Watts is welcoming Cornelia to the U.S. of A., just out of eyesight is an Indigenous American, tied up, beaten, and restrained. This is Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee-born ex-cavalry scout who only wants to claim the land that is rightfully his (twice over). Whipp, a man of few but purposeful words, served his time in the Civil War, even looking the other way when his fellow soldiers took out their frustrations, aggression, and fears on Indigenous people. Now, he’s traveling toward Wyoming, where he plans to lay claim to a few acres and build a new life. But if Mr. Watts’ assault doesn’t make this clear already, just about everyone Whipp comes across tells him the same thing: He’s not getting that land. And for the same reason he was attacked and tied up: “The color of his skin,” as Mr. Watts readily admits.

The English Amazon Prime Video Emily Blunt Chaske Spencer

Chaske Spencer and Emily Blunt in “The English”

Diego Lopez Calvin / Prime Video

Despite his early predicament, Whipp’s path soon intersects with Cornelia’s. She claims it’s magic — a kind of fate ushered in by necessity and a mutual understanding between two good souls in a nation filled with bad ones. How they’re pulled apart and pushed together again makes up the murky, mysterious middle of an otherwise straightforwardly entertaining six hours (less, since most episodes run close to 50 minutes). “The English” over-complicates its plot at times, which, combined with Blick’s enthralling yet extravagant dialogue, can trip up an otherwise thrilling chase. (I found myself regularly skipping back and forth just to make sense of things — an odd feeling for a show with an easily understood intro and themes so clear they border on overkill.)

But what it may lack in efficiency, it more than makes up for in spirit. Blunt and Spencer create genuine characters out of their archetypes. (He a noble gunslinger who’s hunted where a white war hero would be glorified, she a frilly-dressed homesteader hellbent on vengeance, yet preserving a heart of gold.) “The English,” like the land on which it’s set, is built on contradictions. To describe it as a rollicking good time wouldn’t be far off, even if such unchecked elation doesn’t quite prepare viewers for the heartrending twists and turns. Blick’s latest is far from the first revisionist Western to imply the Wild West wasn’t as clean and proper as genre classics first portrayed, nor is it saying anything particularly profound by outlining how deep the roots of violence go in a country built by fleeing immigrants (and persecuted natives).

And yet those ideas still pack a punch. During the last few years of pandemic denials and political divisions, of COVID body counts and regular school shootings, plenty of modern aristocrats have wondered where our savagery and selfishness stems from; why there’s a tacit acceptance of so many seemingly avoidable deaths in the land of the free. “The English” outlines at least one theory: Bloodshed is the American way, and so is believing we can put it behind us. Blick’s explanation is nestled somewhere within the connection between its graceful aesthetics and ruthless inclinations, its sweeping romance and star-crossed lovers, its white flags and red ones.

Grade: B+

“The English” premieres Friday, November 11 on Amazon Prime Video.

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