Reach for the sky

Published date15 November 2022
Publication titleSignal
FIRST and foremost — don’t let the moony opening of The English (“It was in the stars … And we believed in the stars, you and I”) put you off. It is completely unrepresentative of the six hours that follow and I want you to follow them

The English, written and directed by Hugo Blick, is a revisionist Western further revised. We are in 1890, the last days of settlement of the Old West and our all-but-silent hero is Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee native and former scout for the US army cavalry — doubly displaced by the settlers’ theft of his homeland and what his people see as his betrayal of it. He is on his way to Nebraska to stake a claim to the acres he is owed for his army service, despite warnings that the white men in charge will never honour their debt.

Our heroine is Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), who arrives at a remote hostelry in Kansas from England, on the trail of the man she holds responsible for her son’s death. There she finds the manager, Mr Watts (Ciaran Hinds, in the most terrifying of all his terrifying modes), in the process of torturing Eli. She tries to buy his safety but is beaten for her trouble. It becomes clear that news of her vengeful intentions has gone before her and that Watts is under instructions to kill her. The murder will be pinned on Eli.

One semi-mutual rescue and at least four bloody deaths later, their fates — along with his quest and her revenge narrative — have become firmly intertwined. As they cross the plains in search of their different ideas of peace, the relationship between these two lost and harrowed souls becomes deeper and more tender in a way that avoids and transcends mere romance. By the end it is infused with yearning, that rare and vanishing sensation in a world where nothing is forbidden any longer, which helps give the series the edge of grandeur the genre always seeks.

The plot surrounding the emotional core is convoluted. I have faith that were I to map all its parts it would make perfect sense but I would genuinely need to sit down with a paper and pencil, and possibly a cartographer, to do so.

But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that along the way we meet a plethora of picaresque characters (special mention to Nichola McAuliffe as the murderous Black Eyed Mog) who evoke the pitilessness of the...

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