There’s a great spectacle lurking inside the convoluted storylines, otherwise obscuring “The English.” From writer and director Hugo Blick (“Black Earth Rising”), the new Amazon Prime Video limited series enlists Emily Blunt (also executive producer) and Chaske Spencer (“Banshee,” “Sneaky Pete”) to star Cornelia and Eli, a particularly strange couple who forge an equally unlikely and unbreakable bond in the dusty and unforgiving deserts of the American West. Together, these two characters and actors prove to be more than enough to push the show forward – and yet Blick is adding more and more complication to the mix, packing the season’s six episodes with easily 10 hours of material.
From her flamboyant first scene to her melancholic last, Blunt brings her singular combination of warmth, wry humor and relentless determination to the role of Cornelia, an English noblewoman bent on revenge for her dead son. As a conflicted Native American Eli, Spencer deftly balances it with a monotonous stoicism that belies the restless emotions that drive him to succeed in his rapidly changing homeland, on his own terms or not at all. Whenever they’re both on screen, I could happily sit back and let their chemistry and stories take the wheel. Whenever they’re not, however, the series inevitably loses narrative steam as it works overtime to justify detours.
On the one hand, if you can get the kind of supporting cast that “The English” ends with, I understand the instinct to give them enough to show off more of their skills. As Cornelia and Eli head northwest, they encounter everyone from villainous couple Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones, to Gary Farmer and Kimberly Clarke of “Reservation Dogs” as the infamous couple, to Rafe Spall and Nichola. McAuliffe in the delightfully melodramatic genre. roles that the two were clearly relishing the chance to play. On the other hand, the many, many supporting characters that cross Cornelia and Eli’s path just don’t have enough time within the confines of this limited series to make a huge impact. More damning, however, is the amount of explanation needed to contextualize them all, which continues to break the show’s rhythm to frustrating ends.
And so, for as much promise as “The English” has, and the ever-beautiful – if oddly pristine, given the brutality constantly at hand – Western landscapes reserving every scene, “frustrating” ends up being the most appropriate word to describe the series as a whole. Typically, I’m not one to recommend that a show drag out its stories any longer than necessary, but in this case, the overlapping stories end up being too ambitious for the time Blick has to tell them. Sometimes all you really need to tell a good story are the basics. With just six episodes to unpack it all, “The English” would have done better to focus heavily on its greatest strengths: Blunt, Spencer, and the unusual ties that bind their characters’ quests for justice.
“The English” premieres Friday, November 11 on Amazon Prime Video.