The English Review: A Gorgeous And Gruesome Tale Of Vengeance In The Old West

There's almost always a market for gritty westerns, but there's been a bounty of well-made, pitch-black tales of the American west lately. Joining the ranks of shows like "1883" and films like the Academy Award-winning "Power of the Dog" is "The English," a new Prime Video and BBC limited series from writer and director Hugo Blick about romance and revenge on the lawless prairie. 

Emily Blunt stars as Lady Cornelia Locke, an Englishwoman of some means who arrives in Kansas looking for vengeance when the violent chaos of the plains throws a massive wrench in her plans. Her fate seems to be intertwined with a Pawnee ex-calvary scout named Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), who is on his own journey of bloody revenge and redemption. There's more going on — a whole lot more — but the primary drive of the story is Cornelia and Eli's fiery chemistry and their shared goals. 

The dialogue is tightly written, the cinematography from director of photography Arnau Valls Colomer is absolutely gorgeous with plenty of stunning landscapes to gaze upon, and there's plenty of action and suspense, but the series rests firmly on Blunt's shoulders. Cornelia has to be more than an archetype in order to hold the series together, and Blunt's incredible performance helps do just that. The script is a bit too complex at times, but the many parts work so well together that "The English" ends up being a compelling and powerful watch. 

Bound by fate

When we first meet Cornelia and Eli, she's a well-dressed woman in lace and layers of skirts and he's strung up with rope around his chest, dangling in the hot desert sun as his captors look on. There's an immediate sense of dread, and it never really lets up until the final credits roll. "The English" is not a happy story, and it's an impressively bleak tale of just how horrible living in the anarchy of the time was, and those first few minutes give the audience a pretty good idea as to what they're in for. This isn't "Tombstone" or a John Wayne movie; this is something a little more gruesome. 

Cornelia attempts to save Eli by buying his freedom, but ends up captured by a real jerk (played by Ciarán Hinds) herself instead because she's both beautiful and wealthy. Eli ends up sent on his merry way and comes back to save her, repaying her kindness for trying to save him in the first place, though he says he came back just to get revenge on Hinds' character. Eli thinks Cornelia is too soft, but then she drowns her captor in a pretty elaborate way and he realizes she might have what it takes to survive the west. The two get to know one another and realize they have similar goals and destinations: she's looking for the man who killed her son, while he's looking to reclaim ancestral land. They set out, and the rest of the series follows them on a winding journey that leaves a trail of bodies in their wake.

Elegantly depicted misery

Each episode ends up being a different kind of awfulness that Cornelia and Eli must contend with, and initially, it feels a bit grueling. There are numerous scruffy, dirty men who have their own side stories, and while some of them end up being important by the end, they can occasionally feel a little confusing. Thankfully, the dialogue is so well-written and so well-delivered that it's a joy to listen to, and the visuals are lovely to look at. There are loads of wind-swept plains and wooden buildings lit by the setting sun, contrasting the desolate beauty of the prairie with the desperate violence of the people within it. 

What "The English" does better than anything else is impress upon the viewer just how miserable it was to live in the 1800s in the American west. The title refers to the way many British people romanticized the west, both then and now. That idealized version is dashed, of course, and the reality is much, much more brutal. I cannot stress enough just how hard this series is willing to go; it reminds me most of the brilliant Australian film "The Proposition," and features an incredible amount of intense violence and horror. There's murder, rape, torture, and mutilation, and some of the imagery is truly shocking. If you're not prepared to see a wall full of human scalps, this might not be the show for you.

Star-crossed lovers

"The English" has a wonderful supporting cast, including performances by Tom Hughes, Stephen Rea, Ben Temple, and more. The standouts are Gary Farmer (Uncle Brownie from "Reservation Dogs") and Kimberly Guerrero (Auntie B on "Reservation Dogs"), who play a couple of grifters "taking back what's theirs" from the various travelers who wander through their land. Every single actor is giving it their all, but ultimately the most important performances are from Blunt and Spencer. Luckily for "The English," they're both absolutely brilliant, and they have wonderful onscreen chemistry. 

I don't really care for fictional romances. I'm a cynical weirdo who finds the vast majority of romance stories trite or annoying, but the fledgling romance at the center of "The English" is truly romantic. The two have conversations that could easily become corny but don't through the power of the performances and script, and their frequent references to the stars become a through-line of their relationship throughout the six episodes. She tells him about her star sign (she's a Scorpio!) and he tells her about Pawnee legends regarding the stars, sharing their individual cultures but creating a shared narrative. Blunt, who many know best for playing Mary Poppins, is at her fiery best here, making even her "A Quiet Place" performance look tame. Cornelia is a flawed female hero who's equal parts beautiful and badass, but never ever feels like someone's historical fantasy dream girl. 

"The English" occasionally flounders in its complex narrative, but its performances, dialogue, and cinematography make it a must-see for anyone who likes their westerns a bit more bleak and bloody. 

"The English" is now on Prime Video.