'The English' review: Emily Blunt leads BBC's sumptuous Western saga

Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) and Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) in The English (BBC)
Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) and Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) in The English (BBC)

With Emily Blunt front and centre as Lady Cornelia Locke and Chaske Spencer (Echo) as Eli Whipp, new BBC western series The English embraces an old-fashioned sense of mythology which is inherent to the genre.

Dust bowl dry and scraped clean by an unforgiving wind, a lady steps from the stagecoach. A narrow two-storey building is the only evidence of occupation in this arid landscape, bar two locals who serve as seated sentries. One pushes tunes from an old accordion, while the other is welcoming but unwashed. So begins the glossy new drama from acclaimed writer-director Hugo Blick (Black Earth Rising), which hits BBC Two from 10 November.

Read more: Watch the first trailer for The English

Locke is a member of London high society circa 1875, soon to be engaged to businessman Thomas Trafford (Tom Hughes), who has travelled out West to stake a claim in the New World.

The English: Tom Hughes as Thomas Trafford. (BBC)
The English: Tom Hughes as Thomas Trafford. (BBC)

His business partner David Melmont (Rafe Spall) has similar plans and together they seek to conquer this new America. However, this series is more about the displacement of an indigenous culture, who were violently uprooted and driven off their homeland, than any number of superfluous money-making schemes.

By using a connection borne of dramatic necessity established in the opening minutes, Blick has fashioned a sumptuous Western saga, which rivals some of the best in cinema history.

Lifting liberally from the likes of Sergio Leone, Don Siegel and Kevin Costner – The English effortlessly transforms into a windswept masterclass in a matter of minutes.

A still from The English. (BBC)
A still from The English. (BBC)

That being said, whether he incorporates Leone’s classic 60s framing techniques, Siegel’s knack for odd couple relationships, or the revisionist takes from Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, this series still offers originality in scope and ambition. Featuring panoramic shots of sun scorched visas alongside gruesome acts of frontier violence, this uncompromising vision deserves to occupy multiplexes not multimedia platforms.

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Combining the breadth of Dances with Wolves alongside the relationship dynamic from Two Mules for Sister Sara, Blick finds a middle ground between Eli Whipp’s stoic demeanour and Cornelia Locke’s dogged adaptability. With interlinking narratives which jump back and forth in time, visceral introductions are made, and inhumane acts of relocation are witnessed, reminding audiences that pioneering acts always come at a cost.

Emily Blunt as Cornelia Locke in The English. (BBC)
Emily Blunt as Cornelia Locke in The English. (BBC)

Blood-soaked scalps are displayed like trophies, inhospitable environments turn sane men feral, while others get caught up in money making opportunities which force them into demeaning acts. This exquisitely orchestrated Western homage combines classic structure alongside Bone Tomahawk levels of carnage, yet effortlessly outstrips its predecessors whilst adding something new.

Aside from the principal players in this epic frontier tale, who offer up their own layered characterisations and breathe life into these complex creations, there is one actor who genuinely terrifies in his depiction of avarice and self-interest – stealing scenes out from under all concerned as David Melmont.

Watch a trailer for The English

Rafe Spall, son of Timothy, has been making his mark in film and television for many years now, but with his role in The English he has created something special. Coming across like a Peaky Blinders cameo role and channelling all those elements into some devastating character work, David Melmont is a villain defined by his need to dominant.

Either in personal or professional matters he is tyrannical, underhanded and devoid of scruples. Immersing himself in the lawless culture of a developing nation, while cloaking his intentions from an oblivious business partner.

The English,Character Portraits,David Melmont (RAFE SPALL),Drama Republic,Diego López Calvín
Rafe Spall as David Melmont in The English. (BBC)

It is a masterful performance which deserves as much attention as anything Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer do on screen, being both brazen in its physicality and intimidating without drifting into caricature. He brings a morally centred villain to life, proving that an actor need not deposit truckloads of ham on screen to make an impact.

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However, The English still hangs on the presence of Hollywood actor and executive producer Emily Blunt to complete this Western concerto. Bringing an empowering female icon to life on the frontier landscape through Cornelia Locke, who goes from gender dominated trinket to shotgun totting bad ass.

Her connection with Native American Indian Eli Whipp chisels off those soft edges, revealing a pioneering powerhouse for female equality in this male centric society.

The English,First Look,Eli Whipp (CHASKE SPENCER),Drama Republic,Diego López Calvín
Chaske Spencer as Eli Whipp in The English. (BBC)

Looking to avenge the death of her child, The English starts out with a narrow plot point which perpetually expands into a saga encompassing numerous ulterior motives and acts of single-minded vengeance. All overseen by the ambivalent anti-hero Eli Whipp, who straddles a cultural divide between the indigenous population and its agenda driven interlopers – all out for themselves.

A combination which not on blossoms into the best small screen Western in recent years, but adds lashings of cinematic ambition into the bargain.

The English will premiere on Thursday, 30 October at 9pm on BBC Two, and is available as a box set on iPlayer.