Before I get to the actual business of discussing Amazon’s The English (starring Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer), I’m going to be obnoxious. I’m going on a tangent because there’s much to appreciate about this limited series, but I can’t help but be giddy about something that might seem simple but that feels like a revelation.
And it feels silly to say this, but here we are. Everyone knows that there’s a pesky problem these days with movies and TV: in too many cases, you can’t even see what’s happening onscreen. Premium cable channels and streaming services pour millions into “epic” productions and light them with what feels like a 15-watt bulb. Did Arya really kill the Night King during the Battle of Winterfell on Game of Thrones? Maybe! The issue continued with House of the Dragon and was defended as a “creative decision,” and I realize that I’m focusing on one franchise, but it’s an overriding (and frustrating) example regarding an epidemic on small and big screens alike.
With The English, something truly wild happens because you can actually see the action unfold onscreen. It feels like an odd thing to praise, but man, it is nice not to struggle to watch a fine TV show and focus on the story.
I sound sarcastic but am being genuine because look at this:
This is a garbage way to start a review, but I’m excited because this is about more than visuals. Those blazingly blue skies feel aggressively sinister when the show tackles destiny and considers the effects of the past while peering toward the future. And not only is this show satisfyingly watchable during scenes of blazing daylight, but a nighttime scene (which I did not brighten in the below still) has the same outcome.
It’s stunning stuff. And it’s a seemingly small (yet apparently difficult) consideration these days, but I’m here to tell you that this Amazon show has got it together in the cinematography department, which makes our viewing experiences so much easier. Yes, I realize that Westerns (of the spaghetti variety and otherwise) tend to look different than epic fantasies, but I appreciate that no one tried to “gritty” this show up. The same goes for the rest of The English‘s creative decisions. Yes, this is a good and fun show, taking a parable format to sort issues of power, vengeance, race, and gender. The series grapples almost effortlessly with these tough feats. It also happens to be a part of the Western wave taking over your TVs amid Taylor Sheridan and Paramount’s ongoing Yellowstone success that’s spawning spinoffs galore.
The English is a Western, through and through, albeit a glossy one that takes place in the 1890s. Emily stars as Lady Cornelia Locke, an Englishwoman who’s hell-bent upon revenge following the death of her son. She’s accompanied by Chaske Spencer, who portrays Eli Whipp, a Pawnee Nation ex-cavalry scout. They’re an unlikely team and navigating a somewhat farcical landscape full of characters who are essentially caricatures. They 9mean to kidnap and rape women, and they’re bigots who end up getting what they deserve. Hell, most of the antagonistic characters make Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Power of the Dog character seem like a pussycat, just to give a taste of what the leading duo is up against. Through the power of clever screenwriting, the ultimate effect of this cartoon villainy — and Cornelia and Eli’s pushback during their journey — works in a straightforward story that yields complex effects.
In the middle of it all, Emily Blunt’s waving another shotgun, which is no small feat, considering the endless supply of lavish, aristocratic dresses worn by her character. She’s a woman without fear in a place where one probably should fear everything. In fact, it gave me a little bit of anxiety to witness the danger posed by this quintessentially American setting in which Cornelia and Eli travel. Throughout six jam-packed episodes in this limited series, there’s no reason why Cornelia and Eli should still be alive, but they make it through by the power of their commonality. And Eli, whew, what a character. As with Reservation Dogs, we’re finally in a world where an Indigenous character isn’t simply propping up someone else’s story but has goals of his own.
The same can also be said for Cornelia, since we’re also still living in a world where female characters are placed into boxes of their own, but rest assured that not only are Cornelia and Eli equals in many ways, but the same goes for Blunt and Spencer as co-leads. Do not expect a romance story (what a relief). Cornelia has vowed not to marry, and Eli’s the only man in this series who doesn’t have ulterior motives for her. Hell, he has his own hazards to dodge as an Indigenous American, and they’ve truly got each other’s back while traveling toward a newly established Wyoming town while dodging danger at every turn. They’re being tailed by dastardly parties, a rash of mysterious murders is afoot, and Cornelia is somehow (and comically) toting an enormous bag of money, which she somehow manages to hold onto despite, well, everything.
That is to say, there are many elements of the absurd in this series. The villains are exaggeratedly drawn, and Blunt never seems to even break a sweat while wearing elaborate getups in a sweltering and dusty landscape. She’s a pro, but there’s also plenty behind the camera to help strike the right tone, too. Spy-thriller creator Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman) created and directed alongside producers of Peaky Blinders and Killing Eve to dissect what people want from the U.S. versus what they’re getting. Yes, there’s a real “how it began/how’s it going” vibe at work while poking at what America does to people. The series also ends in a poignant and genuinely surprising way following a swift, easily digestible run.
Also, I cannot end this review without mentioning (and that this is not exactly news) that Emily Blunt can kick some serious butt, even without being overtly physical. We’ve seen this more than once, of course. It happened in Edge Of Tomorrow (in which she held her own alongside action-king Tom Cruise) and Jungle Cruise (in which she punched The Rock). Does Sicario count? Perhaps, but those A Quiet Place movies certainly qualify. Hell, she wielded a shotgun and endured childbirth without making a sound. Now, she’s taking a vengeful horseback journey alongside Chaske Spencer, and you’re not only invited along, but you can actually see it happen on Amazon.
‘The English’ debuts on November 11.