Why The English should be your next box set
James R | On 10, Nov 2022
The English premieres on Thursday 10th November, with all six episodes available at once on BBC iPlayer. This review is based on the opening episodes.
“Can you shoot?” “Only if I have to.” That’s Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) and Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) in The English, Hugo Slick’s new Western series, and it soon becomes clear that it’s promise rather than a threat – a promise that will bind them together.
The six-part series is at once an old-fashioned Western and a contemporary fable about power and prejudice, fused with an odd couple road trip. The result is a thrillingly modern examination of the past – and the way in which the past has been presented to us.
It begins with Cornelia rocking up in Oklahoma Territory, a newly created slice of the USA where land is being parcelled up and pounced upon by entitled white Americans eager to make their home – all the while, the Native American tribes who originally settled there are left with barren strips of land that hold little promise. Eli, a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout, has done his time service the country’s military and is hoping to claim a piece of land for himself under the Homestead Act. But, as an American scout reminds him, within the Army, he’s “one of us”, but out in the lawless wild West, he’s “one of them”.
The pair cross paths through a violent turn of events – there is, we quickly learn, no other kind – and find themselves with a lot in common. He’s lost his family, including a daughter and wife, while she’s lost her son. Both are grieving and seeking some kind of closure, and both are being drawn, for initially unknown reasons, to the new town of Hoxem, Wyoming – where Stephen Rea’s sheriff is waiting for them, not to mention a villainous Rafe Spall.
The six-part series follows them through different scrapes and scenarios, ranging from a misogynist hotel owner (Ciarán Hinds) – “You’re not the woman I expected.” “You’re exactly what I expect of a man.” – to a tense horseback showdown involving Toby Jones’ driver and an unexpected bundle in an abandoned carriage.
A large part of the fun lies in watching Blunt and Spencer in action, as they bring an understated, believable chemistry to what in other hands would be an overplayed, corny romance. She’s as forthright as she is vulnerable, while he’s as earnest as he is cynically world-weary; she is naive enough to pick a fight, while he is seasoned enough to know when it isn’t his fight to pick. Blunt relishes the chance to sink her teeth into a complex, confident and poignant character, while the superb Spencer – who, significantly, is a member of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation – delivers a star-making turn that should see him become a leading man in many more series to come.
It’s telling that the show’s title comes from Cornelia’s voiceover, in which she remarks that, to Eli, “we were all the same… we were just The English” – the show’s strength lies in replacing the people who usually get to name and tell these stories with traditionally overlooked and undervalued figures. In a society built on ambition and retribution, they’ve experienced the wrong end of it first-hand many times. Their shared warmth in the face of the cold brutality of 19th century America is gorgeously evoked through the recurring motif of the duo silhouetted against a sun-setting horizon, while the Morricone-esque score from Federico Jusid – and the stylish animated credits – serve as both as love letter to the genre and a reframing of it.
“It cannot be that this whole country is only full of killers and thieves,” remarks Cornelia. As unpredictable as this character combination is within the conventions of the Western genre, we know that both killers and thieves are an unavoidable truth, just as we know their tale can only end with grim retribution. “Can you shoot?” Eli asks Cornelia. “Only if I have to,” she says. “Oh,” comes the reply. “You’ll have to.”