Emily Blunt both stars in and serves as Executive Producer of Amazon Prime Video’s new Western drama series The English. While handsomely produced and gorgeously photographed, the biggest problem with the show is… well, it’s just too blunt.
That little pun is not meant to say that the actress herself is the issue – though, to be honest, this is not one of her better performances. The greater failing is that the show, while well-intentioned, has a very heavy-handed message and zero subtlety in delivering it. The plotting is also way more confusing than it needs to be, seemingly just for the sake of being so.
|Number of Episodes:||6|
|Release Date:||Nov. 11, 2022|
|Watched On:||Amazon Prime Video|
Set primarily in the year 1890 (with a number of flashbacks to earlier events interspersed periodically), the series follows Cornelia Locke (Blunt), a lady of proper British gentry who travels to the American West on a quest to avenge the death of her son. Carrying a bagful of cash and a seemingly bottomless well of resentment in her heart, Cornelia may not be well-equipped for the task, but is nonetheless determined to hunt down the man she holds responsible for her misery. Along the way, she crosses paths with Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer from several of the Twilight movies), a Pawnee scout with his own tales of woe. Despite initially traveling in different directions, they form a quick bond and soon join forces to help each other against the many hardships and injustices that America holds for anyone who isn’t white or a man.
That’s the short summary of the plot, anyway. The way it plays out is far more convoluted, spread across a large number of different characters and locations, as well as a few time periods. The transitions, and the relationships between characters, are not always clear. The show also has a frustrating habit of withholding important information until late in the story. The gruesome details of exactly what happened to Cornelia and her son aren’t revealed until the final episode. Even the identity of the main villain is somewhat ambiguous until well into the second half of the season. We can tell that he’s a bad dude right away, but so are most of the other characters. In fact, the show has few “good” characters other than Cornelia and Eli.
In the second episode, Cornelia declares, “It cannot be that this whole country’s filled with killers and thieves.” Yet that is exactly what she finds. Created, written, and directed by British producer Hugo Blick (The Honorable Woman, Black Earth Rising), The English is a period drama with a one very direct, unrelenting theme – that almost everyone in America is horrible, most especially (though not exclusively) the white men.
By writing that, I probably run the risk of triggering some fragile white male egos. It’s not my desire to turn this review political. More than the sentiment itself, the thing I actually object to is the way it’s handled here. This is the type of show with characters so vile, so racist and sexist and bigoted in every respect that they will actually come out and state in dialogue, “I hate you because your skin is a different color than mine!” The writing is almost comically bereft of nuance.
While Cornelia herself is of course exempt from this, the other English of the title are generally not. Some of the worst characters are not long off the boat from Europe. One of the first we’re introduced to is a hotel owner (played by Irish actor Ciarán Hinds) absurdly over-the-top in his brazen racism and misogyny.
I kind of knew I was in trouble when the first episode opened with a piece of extaordinarily treacly voiceover narration. As much as I usually like Emily Blunt, her performance in this is very affected and not especially convincing for a woman of the time period. Spencer also feels too modern and out of place. While the show offers a convenient story excuse for his perfectly clear, unaccented English, I think it’s pretty obvious that Blick didn’t want to be accused of indulging in “Tonto” stereotypes and went a little overboard in making all of the Native characters even more fluent in the English language than some of the English themselves. A Cockney thug named David Melmont (Rafe Spall) mumbles most of his dialogue in such a thick accent that it’s nearly impossible to tell what he’s saying half the time. Stephen Rea (looking very old and weathered) as an Irish sheriff stuck in the middle of nowhere barely fares much better in that regard.
I don’t mean to imply that The English has no redeeming qualities. The show is well made with excellent production values and has a number of vividly drawn characters. A villainess named Black-Eyed Mog (Nichola McAuliffe) will haunt your nightmares. The penultimate episode also climaxes with a very suspenseful set-piece.
Any television Western made in the modern age will unavoidably face comparisons with HBO’s exemplary Deadwood (2004-2006). I don’t think The English is even trying to compete with that. I’d liken it more to AMC’s Hell on Wheels (2011-2016) or Netflix’s Godless (2017). It’s not quite as good as those, either, to be honest, but I don’t regret watching it. Designed as a one-season limited series (or at least it seems that way), the show is interesting and engaging enough to merit a binge of its reasonable six-episode length. I just wish the storytelling weren’t quite so uneven or frustrating.
Setting aside the issues with its writing, The English has beautiful widescreen 2.40:1 photography. Amazon Prime Video’s 4K stream is exceptionally sharp and detailed, with rich colors and vivid use of HDR. It’s worth watching for the stunning home theater demo material alone. Between this show and The Rings of Power, Amazon has really stepped up its game as one of the best providers of 4K streaming quality.
Although just 5.1, the soundtrack reminds me what dynamic range is supposed to sound like after so many years of movies and TV with flattened bass. Holy hell, the first gunshot will Wake You Up! All through the show, the musical score is broad and expansive, and sound effects are startlingly crisp (and loud!), with plenty of powerful bass. The many gunfights will rock your room.
If I have to nit-pick, some of actors’ thick accents are difficult to discern. A little more clarity in the dialogue portion of the track might have helped. The final episode also has a scene that really calls out for an Atmos mix with discete overhead effects. The series could have benefited even more from that.