The English (2022– )

The English was a surprise, a fresh and brutal version of the western, that takes inspiration from Sergio Leone rather than John Ford.

1890, Pawnee cavalry scout Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer) retires from the army and heads north to claim land he’s entitled to as an ex-government employee. He’s a man of few words, an outsider to both Indians and the genocidal white men who now occupy the country. Spencer brings a real stoicism to Whipp, holding the horrors of the time and ghosts of his past in check. Somehow, given all that’s happened in the name of progress and civilisation, he’s able to avoid the anger most would choose.

The moral bankruptcy of the settler project gets its first real outing when Whipp encounters the very capable Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), recently arrived in America to avenge the death of her son. It’s typical of this Byzantine plot, weaving personal tragedy with the history and horrors of the American west, that Whipp and Locke get less of a meet-cute and more a meet-murder.

Referencing Harmonica from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Whipp has been strung up to a corral gate. Outraged by this torture, Locke tries to buy Whipp’s freedom, but is knocked unconscious by the hitman sent to meet her. Why a hitman is there to meet her gets explained later. One murder begats another, and another, until only Locke and Whipp are left standing. Locke’s determination is evident from the start. She’s a well educated, mannered, English lady, who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, or drown a man in a bucket. Blunt is perfect as a woman with agency in a world that thinks her weak, or property, or doesn’t consider her at all.

This pattern of extreme violence and genocidal cruelty continues as Whipp and Locke head for Hoxem, Wyoming. Navigating the harsh realities of the nineteenth century West, they become ever more entwined the longer their odyssey continues. 

Visually stunning, following Leone to locations in Spain, writer and director Hugo Blick does a brilliant job of keeping the umpteen strands of story moving, weaving them satisfyingly towards a conclusion, that’s as cinematically complete as it’s possible for a story to be. If you wanted to be unkind, you could accuse it of being contrived, but the way the various stands of the story are resolved in the final showdown is elegant, and in perfect keeping with the genre.

Special praise should be heaped on Rafe Spall for his demonic David Melmont, about as evil a character as you’re likely to meet in any film, especially a story with so many unpleasant people.

The brutality of this world should not deter anyone from watching what, at its heart, is a love story.

The title sequence, entirely in keeping with the tone of those early Leone westerns, was directed by Steve Fuller, the man responsible for the Mad Men titles. They feel fresh while still being grounded in the history of the genre.

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