A Journey Across the West
The English: Mini-Series
I have noted this before, but it's worth stating again: Emily Blunt is an amazing actress. No matter how good or bad the works she's in (and she has performed in some stinkers, like Mary Poppins Returns and The Huntsman: Winter's War), she's still amazing in her roles. She has a way of elevating herself, and the scenes she's in, to be better than even the worst material deserves. Frankly, you can give her a script and she'll commit to it fully, raising the profile of the work with her presence.
The English is a mini-series that came out late in 2022 and was generally derided by critics. And you know what? That's fair. This is a dour and violent set of six episodes that almost seems to revel in presenting the worst of everyone. There's the way the Old West actually was, there's the fanciful and mythological version Hollywood tends to present, and then there's this version in The English, a vile and putrid version of the West where everyone is out for themselves and they all have evil in their hearts. And yet, despite that, Blunt still shines. She's amazing in the lead role and she's the primary reason this series is watchable at all. That's hardly a recommendation, especially as the series plays out and gets darker and more repugnant, but still. It's mostly worth it for Emily Blunt.
Blunt stars as Lady Cornelia Locke, the titular Englishwoman of the series. She comes to America with vengeance on her mind, set on a quest to kill the man that killed her son. We don't get the details of what exactly happened until a few episodes in (so I won't spoil it here), but suffice it to say that while she has violence in her heart for this man, she is not an evil person. That is unlike everyone else, such as the hotelier she encounters in Kansas who fully plans to rob her, rape her, and kill her, all while blaming it on a Native American soldier who just happened to wander into his hotel's bar. That man, the man who will get all the blame, is Wounded Wolf aka Sgt. Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a soldier who has just left the Union army to head off north and grab a chunk of land for himself as part of the homestead act. At the first opportunity he frees himself, heads back to the hotel, and kills all the low-lifes working there. In the process, of course, he saves Lady Locke.
Seeing as he's heading north, Cornelia elects to venture with him, talking him into aiding her on her own adventure. While hesitant to help her at first, he finds himself drawn to her. She is willing to get her hands dirty and isn't just looking for some "Indian Brave" to do the killing for her. More to the point, though, she also treats him with respect, seeing him just as a person and not defined by his skin. As they travel they grow close and find themselves relying on each other, more and more, as the darkness of the West closes in around them. They'll need each other if they're going to find the fiend that killed her boy and get her the revenge she rightly deserves.
It's one thing to show history as it was. I'm all for not sugar coasting the Old West (or the Midwest, or the South), and it's fair to say that there were plenty of people out there that didn't take kindly to the Native Americans. There were many policies laid down by the U.S. Government that were cruel and restrictive, and it did lead to a fair amount of violence on both sides. Where the series just focused on Wounded Wolf on a quest to fight the white soldiers and save some of his people then a dark and bloody story would be fair. That's a thin slice of actual history that could be worked with in a violent setting.
However, the country presented in The English makes everyone in the whole of the Old West out to be violent psychopaths. This is built on that version of the West built up by Hollywood over the years, a version where there's a gun fight in every small town and enough dead bodies to fill the cemeteries from Cheyenne to New Orleans. That version of the West didn't really exist (the murder rate was very low, and the number of true gunslingers in the West could likely have been counted on two hands). The English isn't interested in reality, though; it just wants to tell a very dark and depressing story no matter what reality might have said otherwise.
This is the first and biggest issue with the mini-series: there is basically no hope. Cornelia and Wounded Wolf go from one adventure to the next, meeting one foul and awful person after another, with almost no breaks in between to meet anyone that's kind and decent. The fact that Cornelia ends up with Wounded Wolf isn't fate, it's a fluke. Anyone else would have seen her stuff, her bags of cash, her person, and done vile and evil things, at least according to the way The English depicts the Old West. That hotelier at the start of the series, Richard M Watts (Ciaran Hinds), doesn't stick out because he's evil, he's just doing what everyone is doing out in the West to get by. No one is nice, or kind. Everyone is evil.
From that hotel we meet men that attack stagecoaches as they travel west, and then a couple that profits from what those thieves steal (bearing in mind that their ill-gotten gains come after they kill the wagon owners). There are people destroying cattle, people raping and thieving, gangs fighting back and forth for control of their thin slices of violent ground. The only decent people we meet are Wounded Wolf and a couple of other Natives, almost all of whom die over the course of the story. All this mini-series has to give us is violence and death.
Even Cornelia doesn't get to come away unscathed. That man who killed her son, as she puts it, also did vile things to her years before. The violence in this series isn't limited to the West but goes everywhere, spreading like a cancer. Cornelia is driven to vengeance, picking up her weapons and killing when she needs to (and sometimes when she wants to). She's the heroine of our story but she doesn't get to be in the tale without seeing unspeakable darkness. The story destroys her life, along with everyone else it touches, all in the name of drama.
Frankly I doubt I would have made it through this series and it's relentless pursuit of making everyone watch it feel terrible, were it not for Blunt and Spencer. Blunt brings her usual amazing self to this role, presenting Cornelia with poise, strength, and grace. Even at her worst, when she's wounded and covered in blood, or sick and dying, Blunt still finds the reserves within the character to keep that spark of hope and life alive. Anyone else in this role would have given into the darkness and played a much harder and more unlikable lead. Blunt was the woman for this task, no doubt.
I have to credit Spencer, though, because he stands next to Blunt the whole time and he makes Wounded Wolf into her equal. He's the strong silent type, not often sharing much about his life or his family, but he has moments where he opens up and you see this complex character under the surface. Spencer has a balancing act of keeping up the character's shields while still hinting at the vulnerable person underneath which, actually, does make him sound like the other side of the coin for Cornelia. They're a perfect duo.
Frankly this series would be all but unwatchable without the leads, but they make it (at the very least) bearable. I will watch Blunt in just about anything, but the The English has put Spencer on my radar for the future as well. The show is trash but these leads make it work with all their might. It's a terrible series that is still worth watching, at least for a little while, just to see these leads in their element. Whether you'll enjoy the journey in the end, though, is doubtful.