Westerns represent a brutally violent, if not idealized, version of America’s past. Yet, it may surprise you that two blokes from the United Kingdom produced one of the earliest known cowboy flicks. Kidnapping by Indians is a one-minute silent short shot by British filmmaking duo Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. The drama follows a group of white cowboys defending their encampment—and precious white women—from Native Americans. Like Birth of a Nation, this film uses harmful racial stereotypes to portray Native Americans as violent aggressors and white folks as saints. Thankfully, revisionist westerns have, for the most part, moved past this unsavory take on diverse groups like Prime Video’s The English.
Though The English take its visual and thematic cues from westerns of yore (the film mentions Kidnapping by Indians during its end credits), the Prime Video revenge drama elevates the genre by centering its story on a Pawnee scout and white aristocratic woman from England. The six-episode limited series by writer and director Hugo Blick does not set off fireworks with its languid pacing. Still, the old west joint makes up for it with its impeccable acting and gorgeous cinematography.
The English begins with Lady Cornelia (Emily Blunt) reminiscing about her friendship with Pawnee scout and former United States Army Sargent Eli (the brilliant Chaske Spencer). Despite coming from two different sides of the Atlantic, these individuals share a desire to achieve their dreams, no matter the costs. Eli wants to reclaim the land the U.S. violently stole from him, while Cornelia intends to murder the man who killed her son. However, their lives intertwine when the ex-veteran saves the Englishwoman from a sketchy and notoriously violent hotelier named Richard (Ciaran Hinds). Initially, Eli is reluctant to assist Cornelia on her journey to Hoxom, Wyoming, but he soon realizes they have a shared past.
While Eli and Cornelia evade killers and thieves, Sheriff Robert (Stephen Rea) investigates a series of strange murders in Hoxom with the assistance of a widow named Martha (Valerie Pachner). Together the unlikely duo uncovers a conspiracy that links them to Cornelia and Eli. Now the Pawnee Scout and Englishwoman must find the killer before he slaughters them too.
The English is a capital “W” western. Suppose you are looking for something with sweeping vistas, quick draws between bandits and heroes, and steely monologues about the human condition. In that case, this is the television series for you. However, if you want something more pulpy or dramatic, you may want to catch an episode of Yellowstone. Unfortunately, what holds The English back is its pacing. The show tends to move away from the exciting adventures of Eli and Cornelia by padding its episodes with the stories of less compelling characters like Cornelia’s former lover and rancher Thomas (Tom Hughes). In some ways, The English may function better as a film since the shorter runtime may encourage the show to trim the story’s unnecessary fat.
Thankfully, Spencer’s performance as Eli saves the revenge western from its dreariness. The Twilight star is giving John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Danny Glover his take on the Pawnee Scout. Simply put, the Indigenous actor looks and acts like a bonafide western star. One of his most powerful moments is when he explains to Cornelia why he cannot assist her with taking a pair of lost orphans to their Mennonite family in Episode 2. During the scene, Eli tells Cornelia that the orphans are Boomers—white people who steal territories from Native Americans like himself. As the camera rests on Eli’s weathered face, you can see his resentment and pain slipping through his resolve. Eli may be a man of few words, but Spencer’s performance speaks volumes.
Blunt fits well as the fish out of water Lady Cornelia. What makes the British actor’s take on the character interesting is that she does not portray the aristocrat as a scornful woman hellbent on revenge. Instead, Blunt’s Cornelia is flighty, a smidge naïve, and hopelessly optimistic despite her terrible circumstances. Take, for example, Cornelia’s penchant for astrology and magic. These interests may make her eccentric, but they also give her the strength she needs to carry on. Blunt’s “odd couple” relationship with Spencer is also a nice touch as it forces their characters to push each other out of their comfort zones, like when Eli tells a flustered Cornelia only to carry the items she needs, not wants, on her horse.
The western genre still has some problems, but it has come a long way from its sordid past. As a revisionist western, The English has a lot going for it. Its inclusion of fully realized Native American characters played by Native American actors, engaging action sequences, and breathtaking set pieces make for a terrific viewing experience. The pacing drags in some of the episodes, but the performances by Spencer and Blunt will keep you glued to the screen.
Feature image courtesy of Prime Video
'The English' - 8/10