The BBC’s new prestige show The English marks the return of A-list star Emily Blunt to TV for the first time in more than 15 years, and is her debut in a Western. It doesn’t take long to see why she was attracted to this magnificent blood-soaked tale of the Old West.
Blunt plays Lady Cornelia Locke, just arrived in the Mid West (Maryland, to be precise) of 1890. She is out for revenge, seeking the man responsible for the death of her son. Circumstance puts her together with Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Native American who scouted for the US army, and who wants to claim land he believes is owed him.
The two set off on an epic journey meeting a rogues’ gallery along the way, who put ever increasing - often grisly - obstacles in their path. The violence is bloody and visceral – there are scalpings, shootings, brandings, grisly murders and just wait until you find out what happened to Nichola McAuliffe’s Black Eyed Mog – this is definitely more Blood Meridian than Little House on the Prairie.
Written and directed by Hugo Blick, whose CV includes The Honourable Women, Black Earth Rising and The Shadowline, he has crafted a tale that is rich and textured, and told with a sparse, punchy dialogue. It explores big themes - the destructive cycle of violence and revenge, the birth of modern America and the impact of imperialism, colonisation and class.
His direction matches the writing – the action set pieces are heart stopping, some of the frames, such as the first time we see Whipp, are composed like oil paintings. The tropes of Western scenery may be familiar - though it was shot in Spain not America’s Mid West - but the stunning cinematography from Arnau Valls Colomer burnishes the plains and the blue skies that stretch forever.
There is a stellar cast, even the support is populated with superb - though in some cases brief - turns from such actors as Stephen Rae, Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones. Rafe Spall also makes a huge splash when he arrives later in the series, playing the darkness at the centre of the show. It is a performance that dominates the screen, and it’s impossible to tear your eyes from him.
But it is Blunt and Spencer who are the heart of the show. Blunt plays a woman out of place and out of time – her character discovers resourcefulness and strength across the journey; it is a bravura performance.
The discovery is Spencer, who has often played supporting or characterroles, but here he steps into the lead. As the brooding Pawnee Whipp, he conveys the deep tragedy of a character pulled between identities with just a furrow of his brow or a flicker behind the eyes.
He takes the role that Clint Eastwood or John Wayne would have done in previous generations. It feels apt and ground-breaking, and his performance is riveting; it’s impossible not to lean closer every time he’s on screen.
If occasionally the plot becomes a little convoluted – characters disappearing for long periods, causing a bit of headscratching when they return – and sometimes there’s mumbling which needs some expert volume control, these are very minor quibbles.
When the Western is done right it is glorious, offering a mythic landscape in which good battles evil. This story takes the form and creates heartstopping and thought-provoking entertainment that drags the viewer in ever deeper into its heart of darkness.
The English is on BBC2 from November 10 and on all episodes are on iPlayer