Thursday, November 10, 2022

The English, on Prime

Our cousins in the UK love to sniff disapprovingly at the violence in America, but these Brits brought plenty of it across the pond. The native population bears the brunt of it, but they won’t spare anyone. Cornelia Locke is the exception. She only wants to kill a very specific fellow countryman, but she might have to cut down many more to get to him in writer-director Hugo Blick’s six-episode The English, which premieres tomorrow on Prime.

Instead of the man who shot her Pa, Locke is looking for the villain responsible for her son’s death, the circumstances of which will remain murky for the time-being. Unfortunately, it does not look like she will get far. Richard Watts, a racist saloon keeper and fellow British countrymen intends to kill Locke for the considerable cash she is carrying and then frame Eli Whipp, a former Pawnee U.S. Army scout he trussed up for being uppity.

Of course, a warrior like Whipp (that would be his assimilated name) is hard to kill. Rather reluctantly at first, he will ally himself with Locke. He can tell she has some bad business to conduct, so he would rather make his way to Nebraska, where he hopes to file a homesteading claim (which he could have legally, since he was no longer affiliated with a tribe). Yet, he and Locke can’t help saving each other from the various predators roaming the plains. David Melmont, the man Locke intends to kill is definitely one of them.

Melmont has generated a lot of bad karma, beyond Locke. He was one of the worst perpetrators of a notorious native massacre that still haunts the town of Hoxem, Wyoming. In fact, the atrocity indirectly poisoned nearly every character, in ways that will not be immediately obvious.

As revisionist westerns go,
The English makes Heaven’s Gate look like a John Wayne crowd-pleaser. The tragic sweep of Blick’s story is quite powerful, but its relentless historical social criticism gets to be exhausting. The sins of the past just won’t stay buried, which is how it usually works. The first episode is also a darned good traditional western that could almost entirely standalone.

However, Brock gets bogged down in a number of extended flashbacks that greatly slow the momentum of the next two episodes. Locke and Whipp’s ambiguous relationship is the best thing about
The English, but they disappear for long stretches of time.

Both Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer are terrific as Locke and Whipp. In fact, Whipp is such a richly complex character, whom Spencer does full justice to,
The English could make the thesp (and his Morgan Freeman baritone) a household name. As usual, the always dependable Stephen Rea provides understated but memorable support as the decent Sheriff Robert Marshall.

Rafe Spall is weirdly creepy playing against type as Melmont. However, most of his fellow white-trash villains largely blend together. On the other hand, Tom Hughes does some of his career-best work as Thomas Trafford, a morally ambiguous man from Locke’s past, who turns out to be much more complicated than viewers first assume. Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones also add a good deal of color and scenery chewing during the initial episode.

It is worth noting what Whipp wants is what most Americans want: to settle down on some land and be left alone to live his life. (Technically, homesteading was only applicable for Native people who renounced their tribes, but in retrospect, the lack of sneaky coordinated homesteading was a missed opportunity.) The pacing is inconsistent, while the historical guilt-tripping is a little too-constant, but the leads are strong. There are issues, but there is enough in
The English that works for fans of anti-heroic westerns, when it starts streaming tomorrow (11/11) on Prime.