The English: this weighty revisionist Western takes no prisoners

Ramping up the revenge plot with his trademark chewy twists, Hugo Blick delivers a gorgeous series of genre homages and subversions that explore themes of greed, racism, disease and genocide with real deftness.

Chaske Spencer and Emily Blunt as Eli and Cornelia in The English (2022)

One of the original practitioners of Noughties ‘auteur TV’ rather than a transplant from cinema, writer-director Hugo Blick has long proved himself a demanding maestro of the limited series. The craftsman behind such complex, visually striking thrillers as The Shadow Line (2011), The Honourable Woman (2014) and Black Earth Rising (2018), he can cram a movie’s worth of plot into a TV hour, to the pleasure of any viewer prepared to put the work in. The English finds him making an audacious land-grab on the New Western, forcefully reimagining the Wild West revenge quest, with desperate Englishwoman Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) joining forces with trouble-averse Pawnee scout Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) to track down her son’s killer. If the opening episode feels a tad scattered – Cavalrymen decapitating a Native American, Cornelia’s murderous Kansas hosts, a bouquet of ingenious killings – it’s hard not to admire Blick’s ambition.

Already known for pushing genre boundaries, here he goes big on weighty themes, gorgeous Great Plains landscapes and a fat barrel of plot surprises – starting with a reinvention of the Western hero that lets traditionally sidelined characters own the story. Land-seeking Cavalry veteran Eli and revenge-obsessed Cornelia are changed, scarred and welded together by their violent encounters en route, giving Blick’s beloved epic Western themes a new perspective: the duo’s True Grit-style battles are often in the service of protecting Native Americans. Here, European migrants can be prey for merciless thieves, but are also (in Eli’s words) “land-grabbing locusts”, in stark contrast to even recent settler-focused shows like 1883 (2021-22), the prequel to Yellowstone (2018-). As Eli and Cornelia navigate Kansas and Colorado’s ‘friendly’ farmsteads, brutal bushwackers, and scalping kidnappers, Blick ramps up the show’s quest plot with his trademark chewy twists and some mysterious wait-and-see flashbacks to Wyoming murders that plait in both heroes’ pasts. In classic Blickian style, he also adds a fistful of broader existential threats. Greed, racism, disease and genocide are firmly in the show’s sights, as are Tom Hughes’ arrogant English cattle baron and Blick regular Rafe Spall’s garrulous, unscrupulous Cockney chancer.

Visually, the show makes its genre subversions more potent with its frequent loving nods towards classic Westerns, with ravishing widescreen frames in saturated colour, where golden mountains and big skies loom over tense horseback skirmishes. With Spain standing in for Colorado and Wyoming, Blick’s fond spaghetti-western touches – stylised silhouette-packed animated credits, the lush strings and harmonica of Federico Jusid’s driving score – all add to his high and handsome direction. There’s classic Western appreciation in the production design too, emphasising the rawness of the New West with a ragged Wyoming town worthy of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – just plank-fronted tents and hope.

At times, the Western homages feel overdone. Blick has a compulsion for doorway shots à la The Searchers, and you’d find yourself quickly inebriated were you to play a gun-barrel close-up drinking game. Overwriting dialogue has always been Blick’s besetting sin, and here he’s fond of letting motormouth antagonists archly sermonise about manifest destiny, buffalo extermination, and subjugating ‘savages’, proving yet again that no Blick show ever gets out of the way of a Big Issue.

But for the most part, The English handles its themes deftly, foregrounding the Native American experience of colonisation, government-approved land theft, and ubiquitous racism, bolstered by smart, nuanced performances from Native actors such as Gary Farmer (best known from Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, 1995, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, 1999), excellent as a wily huckster. Indeed, the heavy themes never overpower the dramatic thrills, thanks not least to the frequent, expertly directed action sequences, made tense and explosive by Eli and Cordelia’s scrappiness as underdogs. It’s immersive, pulse-quickening stuff, their survival instinct driving the pair through kill-or-be-killed High Plains hold-ups, a superbly tense stagecoach stand-off, and a bullet-raining home invasion that rattles the teeth.

Much of the impact of these scenes is down to the conviction of the performances. Blunt gives the requisite empathy to Cordelia’s delicate but tenacious mother-avenger; her fluttery charm and desperate drive create fine chemistry with Spencer’s Eli, a pragmatic life-battered loner, reluctant to trade his claim-staking dream for her quest. Though Blunt is as excellent as ever, Spencer is the series standout, bringing charisma, grace and gravitas to his incarnation of a stoical Wayne or Eastwood-style hero as a Native American. When he gravely assures Cordelia, “I’ve seen hell, and I’ve raised hell,” we don’t doubt it for a moment.

► The English is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now.