Until I watched all six episodes of Amazon Prime Video’s overstuffed limited series “The English,” I believed I’d follow Emily Blunt just about anywhere. As it turns out, maybe not to the American West circa 1890. In writer/director Hugo Blick’s uneven revisionist Western, she plays Lady Cornelia Locke. The tragic British aristocrat travels across the pond hell-bent on revenge following her child’s untimely death under mysterious circumstances, largely explained in an insufferable voiceover.
Once on the plains, the handsome horsewoman and amateur archer becomes a target for almost any bounder she meets. Her bagful of cash that keeps falling open makes her no less conspicuous. On her travels, she encounters, and sets free, another searcher: Ex-Cavalry Scout Eli Whipp. Played by a terrific Chaske Spencer (“Twilight” actor Sam Uley), he’s a Pawnee who’s lived straddling two worlds and now hopes to return to his native Nebraska, while settling old scores along the way.
What we have here is a Western where the most dynamic characters are a woman and a Native American. That’s a plus on its face – a different look at how the West was won. In many ways, “The English” harkens back to the classic Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns – the expansive vistas of virgin land, the big sky, the Ennio Morricone-style soundtrack, the long silences and its focus on that great theme of the West: Revenge.
In its overt brutality and constant threat of rape and dismemberment, it adds in a dash of Quentin Tarantino circa “The Hateful Eight” or “Django Unchained.” There’s an excess of raw scalps here – and you can see them in their juicy grotesqueness.
Attractive, mumbling Englishman Tom Hughes (he played Albert to Jenna Coleman’s “Victoria”) winds in and out of the story as Lady Cornelia’s former fiancé, Thomas Trafford. He has long ago left her to make his fortune in America as a rancher, and he echoes Benedict Cumberbatch’s tortured cowboy in “The Power of the Dog.”
And if that wasn’t enough crammed in, there’s also a historical romance with all the trimmings. Lady Cornelia and Whipp, opposites in social standing, citizenship and temperament, gradually come together under star-dappled skies. Could they be soul mates? Is there any world where this couple has a future together? If the actors playing them weren’t such charm pills, it would be hard to imagine.
While the overarching series is uneven, there are some great moments where British actors have a chance to chew the scenery in splendor. In one of these, Ciaran Hinds (“Belfast”) plays a mustache-twirling villain in a dandy green vest and a tailored suit so much more proper than his behavior. The Lady becomes his captive, and he insists she wear her fanciest red silk and join him for a dinner with a prairie oyster appetizer. In a great moment of culinary TV, he gets a full minute to put the enormous bulls’ balls in his mouth, and munch, munch, munch with accompanying sound effects.
The highly regarded character actor Toby Jones (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) gets dusty as a wily coachman playing all sides against each other. Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game”) makes for a marvelously underplayed Marshall. Rafe Spall plays the uber-nasty rapist and murderer David Melmont.
All of those characters are relatively stock but that’s not the case for the rampaging villainess Black-Eyed Mog (Nichola McAuliffe) who tries to block Lady Cornelia’s quest. Having been taken prisoner by Native Americans, Mog’s carrying a grudge the size of Wyoming: beneath her cap is scarred bare scalp, underneath her dark glasses are wide eyes shorn of lids, forever stuck in a state of horror.
The Western, as it crisscrosses the frontier, culminates in a pile-up of coincidences, revelations and plot shockers. There’s much too much baggage. If there’s a message that the series could have taken to heart it was this from Whipp. The Pawnee tells the Englishwoman that the difference between what you need and what you want comes down to what you can carry on a single horse. If only this mini-series burdened with giant aspirations would have taken his message about traveling light to heart.
“The English” debuts on Amazon Prime on Nov. 11.