It’s hard to know quite what to say about Hugo Blick’s new drama The English. Three episodes in and I’m still in a state of slack-jawed awe. My God. What does it look like? Nothing I saw at the National Gallery’s Winslow Homer show came even close to these prairies and skies, vast bands of yellow and navy that stretch as far as the eye can see. However gently the grass whispers, there’s no lullaby in it – unless you’re talking about the longest sleep of all.
In Blick’s hands, the American West is a boundless graveyard, literally and metaphorically. Wooden crosses mark the spot where someone lies beneath, people snuffed out here as quickly as candles. But they also point to the future, to a place where adequate reparation for crimes against both people and land will be far beyond possible. If Blick (The Honourable Woman, Black Earth Rising) wants to give us an exciting adventure, he has also written an origin story of sorts.
Is The English a masterpiece? I’m not sure. But it’s certainly like nothing else I’ve ever seen, its script a perfect illustration of the maxim that an artist does not need to be credible if he is convincing (we are far too involved to care about implausibilities).
The action begins in 1890, when an English woman, Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), pitches up in Oklahoma in search of the man who murdered her son. In possession of large amounts of hard cash, naturally she’s soon surrounded by bandits and murderers, brutes who are provoked not only by her looks and her independence, but by her sudden, unwarranted kindness to a man called Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a former US army cavalry scout and a member of the Pawnee Nation, who is on his way to claim a few acres in Nebraska. Somehow, though, Whipp rescues her, and together they begin the ride north: a double act 100 times more unlikely than the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
What happens next? Everything! Blick’s plotting is intricate, his feeling for suspense extreme. The series comes with a stylised violence I find both compelling and hard to watch. Danger lurks everywhere, and comes in every possible human form: in the West, everyone’s out for themselves. Here is a potty-mouthed Welsh woman with no eyelids, and here is an English aristocrat bearing a rudely aborted calf. Here are guns, blowpipes and bows and arrows, and here are scalpings, lynchings and drownings.
I feel I should warn latecomers about an earlyscene in which a crook called Richard Watts (Ciarán Hinds) eats some prairie oysters (aka bullocks’ testicles), his jaw grinding away suggestively at their horrible softness. But even that was not half so startling as the scene in which a group of English men played cricket in their whites and blue caps on a plain somewhere in Kansas. One never thinks of what the settlers, whether German, Swedish or English, might have brought with them to the US, save (perhaps) for their Bibles. Will Eli get the land that he is owed for his army service? Will Cornelia find the killer of her child? And what might their strange partnership eventually become? I want, quite desperately, to know the answers to these and other questions.
Blick, who also directs, gives us so much to admire. It’s marvellous, the way he riffs topsy-turvily on the films some of us grew up watching – I thought occasionally of Shane, the classic from 1953 starring Alan Ladd that was a favourite of my father’s – and he has drawn such fine performances from his actors. I will admit to being uncertain about Blunt’s voice, which sounds peculiar and jarringly anachronistic to me, but I love her way with a gun, which she fires fiercely, only for the tears to come when she hits her target. Even Stephen Rea, an actor I can’t usually abide, puts in a decent turn as the sheriff of a town so nascent it looks like scenery flats on a studio lot.
But it’s Spencer who’s the real star of the piece. He is amazing: so still and quiet and controlled. What charisma. Impossible to take your eyes off him. There’s poetry in his every monosyllable. “Huh,” he’ll say, and it might as well be Shakespeare.
1 December, 9pm; now on catch-up
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette