The English (2022)

     

Westerns are not my cup of tea, because it seems like the characters are always waiting for the worst to happen and must go through it. But The English, for what it's worth, is a solid, if sometimes confusing and convoluted, western with two brilliant leading performances and enough panoramic landscapes to satisfy anyone's desire for beauty.

 

Green as a stalk of wheat before it ripens, Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) turns up in the middle of nowhere with a satchel full of money and an irrational but burning desire to kill the man who killed her son. This English aristocrat has no clue how to survive in the old west, which becomes apparent as soon as she reveals she has money (in an attempt to convince a shady hotel owner to cut down the Pawnee scout he has strung up for "asking for a drink") and gets punched in the face. The hotel owner, as it turns out, has been told to keep an eye out for her by the very man she wants to kill, and he intends to have a little fun with her before he puts her six feet under the hard-packed earth of the desolate town. Thinking he can get a reward for sending off the Pawnee scout, he hustles him onto the stage and sends them off into the approaching darkness--not realizing that the Pawnee is Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a newly retired military scout who has a dream of settling down on his own acres of land in Nebraska (promised to him by the US government).

 

But Eli has no intention of going anywhere without his horse and his few meager possessions... so when a twist of fate frees him from the stagecoach, he rides back to get them--and shoots the man threatening to kill Cornelia in the meantime. She sees this as a sign that they should travel together and begs him for help. And because she's so pathetic and naive that she's likely to get herself killed, Eli agrees to travel with her... for a short distance. But as the two of them move toward their destinies, they encounter all manner of hardships, struggles, and long conversations that peel back the complex layers of their life like a raw onion. Meanwhile, the story dips in and out of the past, as it explores other people's adventures, and it's not clear why until the final episode.

 

To start with the good, the leads are incredible together. Theirs is a slow burn and rather tragic romance, an English lady of surprising meanness and depth when she has to be, and the Pawnee scout who says it's "none of my business" (his answer to everything) while somehow always winding up making it his business. I've only ever seen Spencer in one other project (Twilight), but he is absolutely perfect as this man of few words and hidden tenderness. And Blunt is her usual spectacular self, playing a woman who doesn't get everything she wants, or even very far without the men in her life. It's a more realistic take on what it meant to be a woman in the old west than I expected from a modern western. And it's not a nice place. Villains wait around every bend to rob you, kill you, steal your horse, or turn you over for some kind of a reward, and their wives aren't much better. Then there's the horrific old lady without any eyelids who has made it her business to scalp every Indian she can lay her hands on (and her awful children). It's grim, to say the least, but also has moments of levity and charm. The costumes are beautiful and it's truly cinematic, with many long-shots with the majestic mountains, prairies, or crags behind the main characters.

 

However... it's not for the faint of heart, since it's violent, not only against people but also animals. And it's extremely convoluted, leaping back and forth between past and present-day, without telling you who people are until almost the end. Then it unravels everything to explain, but it's still somewhat confusing and I had to look up clarifications to make sure I understood what had happened. In the process of going back and forth, some of our attachment and awareness to secondary characters gets lost, and so when they come up later, we're not sure why they exist or even who they are. In that respect, the series is trying so hard to be enigmatic and mysterious, it becomes hard to follow. The dialogue doesn't always help in that department, since it leaves you to translate, piece together, and try to figure out the meaning behind some of the vague conversations characters have, which is frustrating. I have a feeling a second viewing would clear a lot of it up for me, but I shouldn't need it. I can't say I'll ever watch it again, but I also can't say I won't, and I appreciate that while rape is a motivating theme in the story, I didn't have to watch it.

     
Sexual Content:
References to rape (a woman asks if she will be raped, the man implies the answer is yes; a woman says her sons may do what they please to a woman they have captured--we later find out they were the result of her being raped by Indian warriors); a woman is raped in a flashback (off-screen... we see her curled up in a ball and crying afterward). Spoiler. We find out this woman contracted syphilis from her rapist, resulting in her deterioration and their rape-baby's slow, horrible death at age fourteen; other male characters are also infected with the disease, and show varying amounts of disfigurement as a result (missing fingers and bones, sunken faces, etc). A man and a woman kiss, but she becomes upset and runs off to tear off her clothes in the desert (down to her corset and bloomers) and slather dirt all over herself. A man serves a woman "prairie oysters" (bull testicles) and she bites one in half and spits all the semen onto her plate.

 

Language:

Fifteen f-words, two abuses of Jesus' name, one use of God paired with a profanity, a few uses of sh*t.
 
Violence:
The first episode opens up with a bloody stump where someone's head once was; the violence escalates from there into gore as people are mowed down, shot with arrows and rifles, beat up (including a woman who is punched in the face), kidnapped, drugged, and kicked. Everywhere they turn is someone waiting to kill them, resulting in lots of bloodshed, confrontations, thievery, and hurt animals. A woman is found dead, and her baby has to be cut out of her (off-screen). We see bloody scalps covering a wall, and a woman walks away with one such scalp; a woman removes her dark glasses to reveal the disfigurements to her face by the Indian warriors who raped and tortured her -- she is missing her eyelids. Another man, dying of a sexual disease, is missing pieces of his face. There's lots of dead animals -- horses are shot and killed; we see a dead cow a woman has just shot to make a point; a man throws a bloodied aborted calf down before the sheriff and says someone's killing his pregnant cows; a rattlesnake has its head blown off, and we see the grisly corpse; we see dead bunnies, including a close-up of one being skinned.

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