The English is a moving but messy Western

Emily Blunt in The English

Emily Blunt The English
Photo: Diego Lopez Calvin/Drama Republic/BBC/Amazon Studios

Prime Video and BBC’s new Western drama, The English, starts with an unhurried voiceover from Emily Blunt’s Lady Cornelia Locke. As the camera pans over a tidy room that doubles as a shrine to her former adventures, she softly narrates, “Without you, I’d have been killed right at the start. That’s how we put. That’s why we put. It was in the stars.” She steps out of her Victorian London mansion, dressed in garb fit for a funeral, clearly reflecting on her past crusades with a special someone. The monologue acts as a harbinger of the dark story about to unravel, promising intrigue, suspense, action, and romance.

Unfortunately, the six episodes rarely evolve beyond their labyrinthine narrative. The English cares frustratingly little about following a streamlined arc, providing meaningful answers, or connecting dots until the end. That’s rough because, evidently, it has all the makings of a classic Western saga. But the pacing and plot development take a backseat to linger scenic shots. That said, series creator Hugo Blick’s direction, aided by cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer and production designer Chris Roope, is hypnotic, and the show is visually gorgeous as it jumps from the dreary hues of 1890 London to a sunnier, arid American desert in 1875 to fill in the blanks.

But back to the problematic plotting. Cornelia, who belongs to a wealthy aristocratic family, arrives alone in the newly created territory of Oklahoma with a mission to avenge her dead son. How, when, and where he died, how old he was, what he looked like—none of that matters until the finale. What’s important is Cornelia’s maternal devotion, which drove her to travel all the way to the United States to find and kill the man responsible for his demise. For the most part, her unflinching love is the only trait she gets, and boy, does Blunt sell the hell out of it. The actor is in top form, and catching her immersive performance—from briefly breaking down to sharp fight scenes—makes it worth sticking with the messiness of the show.

The English tries to build tension, as is essential for any mystery, but dulls the suspense with a structure that lacks any excitement or even context. The first couple of outings, especially, are painfully slow and boring. It’s a chore of the highest order to keep up with an overload of character introductions and their motivations because it’s all left up in the air. You can either try to decipher it or sit back and hope it eventually makes a lick of sense. Thankfully, all six episodes will release at the same time to binge.

Somehow, Cornelia ends up in the barn of Richard M. Watts (Ciarán Hinds) in the premiere at the same time as one of his captives, Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), and an effort to free him ties them together permanently. Eli is an ex-US soldier and Pawnee Nation scout who is at odds with both his Indigenous community as well as the white men taking over his country. All he wants now is to reclaim a piece of land in Nebraska that’s meant for him. This internal struggle in itself presents a fascinating storytelling opportunity. More, Spencer (best known for the Twilight movies) is a goddamn revelation; his quietly moving work is excellent, but The English doesn’t take advantage of it.

The English – Official Trailer | Prime Video

Instead, Eli gets entangled in Cornelia’s bid for revenge, only to learn he might have ties with her sordid past. As their lives collide, Cornelia and Eli discover a friendship (and possibly more) while facing off against stereotypical genre villains. These enemies range from Hinds’ racist Watts to Rafe Spall’s cruel David Melmont (giving a performance that is too cartoonish to be taken seriously) to a Native American couple played spectacularly by Gary Farmer and Kimberly Guerrero. Their arrival in the third episode as John and Katie Clarke sets the wheels in motion for a show that had been dragging up to that point. The only other spark comes from Spencer and Blunt’s stirring chemistry, whether they’re stargazing, talking about magic, or saving each other from the brink of death.

The English features expected tropes like shootouts, standoffs, and luxurious frames of characters riding horses across the desert. Blick is invested in delivering a Western odyssey, and Phoebe De Gaye’s costumes also deliver. So it’s surprising when Mazzy Star’s 1993 song, “Into Dust,” is crammed into an episode. (Nothing takes you more out of the Wild Wild West than the string guitar tunes often played on The OC). The dialogue is far too cheesy as well, with Blick’s writing jarringly switching from millennial cringe to old-fashioned romance.

There are hints of an in-depth, poignant tale hidden within The English, as Eli and Cornelia struggle with retaining parts of their identities after experiencing tragedy. But the show so explicitly wants to establish its Western atmosphere that the plot becomes an afterthought. That’s a tough hill for any series to climb, even one with a star-making turn from Spencer and arguably a career-best performance from Blunt.

The English premieres November 11 on Prime Video.


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