Airing on: BBC Two / BBC iPlayer
Episodes viewed: 6 of 6
Hugo Blick first came to prominence on British television in 2000, as co-creator of the Rob Brydon comedy vehicle Marion & Geoff. Its ten-minute episodes were entirely confined to the setting of a taxi and filmed by a single fixed camera. It was the definition of a small-scale, intimate little gem. Twenty-two years later, Blick’s latest series as writer/producer/director is set in the extremely wild West, and every shot is a beautifully composed widescreen work of art. Playing out across vast landscapes, it’s as epic as they come. What Blick’s shows have in common, though, from the tiny Marion & Geoff to his super-ambitious interrogations of Middle East politics and Rwandan genocide in, respectively, The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising, is an uncompromising bravado and audacity.
The English is Blick’s big swing at the Western genre, and swings don’t come much bigger. It’s a Western in the same way his previous masterpiece, 2011’s The Shadow Line, is a conspiracy thriller. Blick’s love of the genre is evident in every scene, but he also subverts it, turns it into something gloriously grandiose, and makes it feel utterly current. Emily Blunt’s character Cornelia Locke, for example, is a woman out of time, refusing to take any shit from the various despicable men she comes up against during her extraordinary Western odyssey. She’s a fabulous gun-wielding action hero in a purple dress when she needs to be — but at the same time, there’s little she can do when a brutal tyrant suddenly punches her.
Blick's action set-pieces have the operatic intensity of a Sergio Leone movie.
This is in many ways an indictment of a depraved, imperialist world run by horrendous, entitled men as well as a grand romance, but it’s never idealised. The story is rooted in the harshest of realities, set in a world of such continual violence and random cruelty that it makes Westeros seem like Tunbridge Wells. Blick, as director, handles all this with total expertise. His action set-pieces have the operatic intensity of a Sergio Leone movie; one such sequence, in which Locke and companion Whipp (Chaske Spencer) come under sustained sniper fire out on an open range, is truly nerve-shredding.
Best of all: Blick, as writer, has created an unforgettable array of characters. Among the dazzling supporting cast, Rafe Spall stands out as an animalistic monster whose wanton viciousness is so twisted it’s actually funny, and yet bloodcurdling at the same time. As for Blunt, her first major TV project since 2006 is arguably the role of her life, playing a woman of enormous poise who burns with righteous fury. And Spencer’s Whipp radiates an unyielding determination to get what he wants. The underlying question of the whole saga is whether there can be any kind of future for these two: an aristocratic Englishwoman and a Pawnee scout. It’s a tale as old as time, but The English makes it feel thrillingly fresh and different. Quite some achievement.