‘The English’ wants to critique the blood-soaked Old West. Instead, it revels in it

An aristocratic woman in a pink coat and white hat on the prairie
Emily Blunt in “The English” on Prime Video.
(Diego Lopez Calvin/Prime Video)
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The newly created state of Wyoming and sprawling Oklahoma territory are shockingly beautiful and brutal places in “The English,” Amazon Prime Video’s six-part drama set in 1890s America. Violence and wanton cruelty are as commonplace as shimmering fields of buffalo grass among the land-grubbing settlers, nefarious opportunists and Indigenous loners who populate the region.

Somewhere in all that carnage is the potentially compelling story of an odd couple whose paths meet despite their disparate backgrounds. He’s a Pawnee ex-cavalry scout headed for a land claim in Nebraska, where he hopes to settle down and give up fighting. She’s a bereaved English aristocrat who’s left her pampered life behind to avenge her son’s death. Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) and Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) soon discover a shared history that binds them through the many twists and turns ahead.

This revisionist western, written and directed by Englishman Hugo Blick (“Black Earth Rising,” “The Honourable Woman”) and co-produced by Blunt, has much to offer in the way of commentary on the final days of settlement in the Old West, the displacement of the Native population and the role greed played in formation of America. But the series’ obsession with man’s worst instincts requires one swim through rivers of blood and wooden dialogue to get there.


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The splendor of the landscape — craggy cliffs, endless skies, picturesque vistas — is more like a “Westworld” hellscape when it’s littered with cutthroat soldiers, depraved bushwhackers and desperate, homicidal land seekers. White folks’ wholesale hatred of the Native population — who in turn call the interlopers “the English” — is so prevalent that it’s part of the ghoulish scenery. Expect trophy scalps, rotting bodies dangling from trees and the mention of purses made from women’s genitals.

If “The English” had spent less time reveling in wicked behavior and more time developing the story of Eli and Cornelia, it might have forged a narrative strong enough to justify sitting through the butchery. But although there’s plenty of lengthy dialogues between the two, the writing is stilted much of the time. “It was in the stars,” says Cornelia in the series’ opening narration. “And we believed in the stars, you and I.” Eli’s the stoic half of the duo, so he gets lines like: “I’ve seen hell and I made hell.”

What fascinating characters “The English” has at the margins quickly cycle in and out of the miniseries — bad men and women whose motivations and backgrounds remain un- or underexplored. And as the series progresses, it grows ever harder to discern an event’s importance. How could you know when you can’t place the folks who are supposed to make it relevant?

“The English” is populated with an impressive cast, particularly boldfaced names of Great Britain and Ireland like Blunt, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and Stephen Rea. Unfortunately their talent is not enough to save this miniseries from its overwhelming obsession with the myths that make the Old West a violent playground for the imagination.

‘The English’

Where: Amazon Prime

When: Any time

Rating: 16+ (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 16)