‘The English’ suffers from lackluster storytelling, benefits from star Emily Blunt
“The English” first grabs your attention because it stars Emily Blunt, one of today’s strongest actors.
Described as a “chase Western,” the limited series set in the late 1800s pulls you in with breathtaking views of the American West, giving “Yellowstone” a run for its money in that department.
However, the show from writer-director Hugo Blick — debuting in the United States on Prime Video with all six of its roughly hourlong episodes — then keeps you at pistol’s length with a convoluted, often frustrating tale of love, race and revenge.
Blunt (“A Quiet Place,” “Sicario”) portrays Lady Cornelia Locke, an aristocratic Englishwoman who has traveled to America with a very specific goal.
Her co-star is Chaske Spencer (“The Twilight Saga,” “Banshee”), who portrays Eli Whipp, a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout headed to Nebraska to stake a claim to a piece of land — a claim, he repeatedly is told, the white man won’t respect even if he is right to make it after having served in the U.S. military.
We know the pair will find love from the opening moments of “The English” thanks to Cornelia’s narration, addressed to Eli.
“Without you, I’d have been killed — right from the start,” she says, adding that he and she “met in the stars.”
She continues to lay it on a little thick, conveniently explaining the show’s title, referring to any who came to the land already home to the Pawnee and myriad other Native American tribes.
“To you, we were all just the same; we were all just ‘the English.’”
We formally meet Cornelia as she is given a seemingly friendly introduction to “the real America” by Richard M. Watts, a man played by the always enjoyable Ciaran Hinds (“Game of Thrones”). However, after allowing her to exit her carriage and exchanging a few words with her, Richard punches her in the face.
“She always so mouthy?” he asks the driver, Sebold Cusk (Toby Jones of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”).
Richard has nefarious intentions not just for her but also for Eli, who apparently made the mistake of walking into Richard’s hotel and politely ordering a drink and now is his captive.
Without spoiling what is to come for him, let’s just say Richard is not the show’s big bad. That distinction belongs to British businessman David Melmont, portrayed by Rafe Spall, doing, it would seem, his best Tom Hardy impression. (He’s not really right for the role, but don’t judge Spall too harshly — he’s really good on “Trying,” which can be streamed via Apple TV+.)
Melmont’s connection to Cornelia will become clear over the course of “The English” despite the show’s muddy storytelling. Other key characters include Sheriff Robert Marshall (Stephen Rea), Martha Myers (Valerie Pachner) and Thomas Trafford (Tom Hughes).
Ultimately, so many side characters populate “The English” that it can be a little hard to follow, at least at first. Blick, to his credit, is highly concerned with the viewer knowing the locations of his scenes — we constantly get on-screen text that establishes we are now, say, in the "newly created state of Wyoming, U.S., 1890" or the "bootleg compound of Black Eyed Mog" — but struggles in establishing characters.
Of course, we mainly are to be concerned with the bond that forms between Cornelia and Eli, the latter teaching the former that there is a difference between what she wants and what she needs. (And what she needs is what she can take with her on a horse, if you’re wondering.)
While their scenes never quite crackle, they are compelling, largely thanks to the actors’ steely performances. Blunt is, as you’d expect, borderline-captivating, while the lesser-known Spencer holds his own.
If there is one supporting performer who deserves to be singled out it is Nichola McAuliffe (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”) as the aforementioned Black Eyed Mog. With the help of some stunning makeup, McAuliffe crafts a character who’s memorable despite being only a very small part of the story. Her work is one reason the series’ penultimate episode, “The Buffalo Gun,” is its strongest entry.
The first episode, “What You Want & What You Need,” also is solid, establishing some of the series’ themes along with those jaw-dropping vistas and classic Western fare — such as a standoff where Blick cuts from shots of fingers on triggers to close-ups of eyes. (It’s also our first hint that we will be treated to some wonderful Americana songs from artists such as The Wailin’ Jennys.)
Blick (“The Honourable Woman,” “Black Earth Rising”) doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with this Western but does have trouble keeping it rolling in a straight line. While some of the flashbacks are crucial to give us the full picture, some of the nonlinear storytelling frustrates.
Perhaps the best you can say about “The English” is you’re never quite sure how the story will conclude, and that opening narration from Cornelia has you anything but convinced a happily-ever-after for Eli and her resides at the end of the trail.
How to watch: On Prime Video