‘The English’: Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer Saddle Up
November 10, 2022
The new Amazon series “The English” bears all the external signs of the classic westerns of yore, with scenes that could have been pulled straight from a 1950s Technicolor epic. There are horseback riders silhouetted against retina-singeing vistas, desolate outposts appearing like sunbaked hallucinations, and low-angle shots that magnify people into mythic figures.
“I was enthralled, just blown away by the beauty of it,” the show’s leading man, Chaske Spencer, said of discovering “The English” on a big screen at its recent London premiere. “It took me back to, like, ‘Giant’ and some of those big John Ford western movies.”
But “The English,” which was written and directed by Hugo Blick and premieres Friday on Prime Video, is also a very different beast. While the story is, in some ways, a relatively conventional chase, with some characters you root for and others you want to see dead — and many more somewhere in the uncomfortable middle — it is suffused by an unconventional spirit with an uncommon romance at its center. All of that appealed greatly to its marquee star, Emily Blunt.
“Hugo certainly writes with great panache — you’ve got to kind of allow for it and allow space for it,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “He makes me laugh because he seems a bit baffled by the fact that people think his writing can be a bit bonkers.”
This may be an understatement. “The English” is very arch and very stylized, at once real and surreal. “It has a classicism,” Blick said in a video chat. “But I hope in front of the camera there’s a modernity to it.”
At the heart of the story are two people estranged from society, each with a mission. Blunt plays Cornelia Locke, an English lady who finds herself tearing through the wild expanses of the American West in 1890, driven by revenge; Spencer plays Eli Whipp, a Pawnee former Army scout with whom Cornelia forms an unlikely — and yet completely inevitable — alliance.
In a genre where female leads are rarely granted full agency, the strong-willed Cornelia stands out. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘How great that she’s not the jolly whore in a western,’” Blunt, 39, said on the phone, laughing. “The jolly whore or a damsel tied to a tree.”
Blick, a British television creator who had written enticingly complex characters for Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Honorable Woman” and Michaela Coel in “Black Earth Rising,” had some very specific ideas about whom he wanted to play Cornelia.
“I always had Emily in mind, so I just sort of went, ‘I’ll send it to Mary Poppins,’” he said, referring to Blunt’s starring role in the 2018 film “Mary Poppins Returns.” “And I did mostly, I have to say, because she was so brilliant in ‘Sicario.’”
In turn, Blunt said she was hooked as soon as she started reading the script and encountered Cornelia.
“It was that first line where she said something like, ‘That’s why we met: It was in the stars and we believed in the stars, you and I,’” she recalled. “Then she says this Pawnee word, ‘tataciksta,’ which means “I cherish you,’ and I was like … ” She let out a groan of pleasure, then laughed. So taken was she that she ended up signing on as an executive producer as well, and was very hands-on throughout the project.
Just as crucial to the show’s beating heart was figuring out who would play Eli. Spencer soon seemed just as obvious a choice as Blunt had been.
“When Chaske came and read for the part, the air changed in the room,” Blunt said. “He walked out and I went, ‘What just happened?’ He really understood the heart of this character and the stillness of him and that kind of regality he has.”
Despite his love for the classic westerns to which “The English” pays affectionate tribute, Spencer acknowledged a common flaw: They often relied upon white actors in brownface to play Indigenous roles or used white characters who had “gone Native” as a way into Indigenous culture. (Spencer, Blunt and Blick each mentioned the 1967 Martin Ritt western “Hombre,” which starred Paul Newman as a white man raised by Native Americans.)
It took a long time for the industry to change, which Spencer, who is of Indigenous descent, recognizes too well. Known for playing the Quileute werewolf Sam Uley in the “Twilight” movies, he has, at 47, been around long enough to see the changes firsthand.
“There was a time when I wasn’t allowed to play the lead actor who was Native,” Spencer said in a video chat.
“I made some friends who aren’t Native but played Native, and it’s not their fault — they were just doing a job,” he added. But when the time came for him to take the lead, “I was very prepared,” he said. “You’re sitting on the sidelines waiting to play in the game; you’re ready to go.”
His character avoids conventions of the so-called noble savage; Eli’s internal conflict pits his loyalty to his heritage against his history in the U.S. Army, which spent decades at war with Indigenous Americans. Still, Eli is a man of few words, which was itself a potential minefield: Would he be yet another cliché of the stoic Native American?
“I was a little afraid of that, but it’s just written so well,” Spencer said, adding: “When Eli showed restraint, that was really important to me because I didn’t want the audience to have a clear view of him. I wanted to play the character with his cards very close to the chest.”
There is also a tenderness to Eli, which prevents his being reduced to some mysterious object of desire. He and Cornelia develop trust and respect as fully developed human beings, which the actors built by spending time together before filming started. Their affection for each other was evident.
“Emily and I rehearsed, preproduction, and we hung out,” Spencer said. “We talked about our families, things we could relate to and we could bring into the characters. I love rehearsal, and a lot of times on film, you don’t get that.”
Blick also thoroughly researched the place and time, especially when it came to Eli’s background. Once the script was completed, he sent it to members of the Pawnee and Cheyenne Nations so they could vet it.
“When the Pawnee Nation gave us the stamp of approval, I felt very honored by that,” Spencer said. “We had people come in to help me teach the song and the language, and developing those skills helped me get into character even more.”
And yet “The English” feels more like a fever dream than a documentary. The big landscapes of the Spanish desert, where the show was shot (just like Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns), are matched by big emotions. The soaring soundtrack by Federico Jusid accompanies human dramas that escalate into the realm of tragedy.
And as a quest for revenge feeds much of the action, so does the kind of smoldering attraction great romances are made of — something Spencer relished.
“You don’t get to see the Native scout having some type of romantic relationship with the leading lady,” he said of the vast majority of westerns. “When I read the script, I loved the romance, I loved the chemistry. I loved the adventure. I loved the history of it, too.”
And then there is the violence, which is just as intense as the romance, and a lot more graphic. But Blick was especially careful not to revisit past traumas by re-enacting them.
“There was one type of violence that was witty, humorous, and you kind of get to see it because you’re in the world that comes with it,” he said. “There were other forms of violence, usually applied to Native Americans by expansionism, that I absolutely didn’t want us to look at. There are certain kinds of elements that even this kind of story is not going to participate in, and only allude to.”
Still, viewers should brace themselves. Watching the first two episodes on a big screen at the London premiere, Blunt experienced the series’s impact full force. “I almost vomited in my mouth,” she said, referring to a specific scene. “It was just so awful.”
That is just one of the ways in which “The English” commits to the intensity of the emotions it encompasses.
“It can dance between being witty and violent and beautiful and funny,” Blunt said. “It can be all of those things. And people are all those things as well.”