Life in the Wild West was notoriously unforgiving. Though human innovation has overcome many of the issues that plagued European settlers in the 1890s—like poor hygiene and smallpox—there are some things we simply have no control over, like the weather. And while the fashion at the time might have been fine for the moderate climate of London, it was perhaps not so suited to Kansas, where we are introduced to Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer’s characters in The English.
Set in 1890 and filmed in the “mythic vistas” of Spain at the height of summer, The English is a six-episode saga featuring Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke, a British aristocrat on a quest for revenge against the man who killed her son. She teams up with Eli Whipp (Spencer), a Skidi of the Pawnee Nation and former cavalry scout grappling with two conflicting identities. Facing a violent landscape, their physical and psychological limits are constantly tested as they head towards their ultimate destination new town of Hoxem, Wyoming.
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Like their fictional counterparts, the actors too had their fair share of physical challenges. Four months of rigorous horse riding, fighting and shooting training under the merciless Spanish sun, where the temperature frequently soared over 100 degrees. At the New York City premiere of the series on November 9, 2022, Blunt recalled one day on set that was particularly challenging. Her costume was typical of the Victorian time period, comprising layers of woolen cloth, a corset, bustle and long sleeves. Spencer was draped in “this massive red blanket”. Needless to say, outfits that are not suited to the heat. “The hardest day on set was where we were doing this standoff into a shootout,” she told StyleCaster. “It was about 110 degrees that day and Chaske got sunstroke, he told me later he almost fell off his horse.”
Spencer, who Twilight fans may remember from the Wolf Pack, remembers that day too: “Yeah there was a day where I started to get a little light-headed,” he said. Blunt added that while it was indeed tough at times, it was all part of the experience. “You want to be exposed to the elements when you do a Western and we were and you feel it, it’s tactile and so I loved it,” she said. She later added that the nights were “so beautiful because the sun would be setting and with all the horses and wagons, it would kick up this dust that would add this eerie, beautiful, spellbinding look to the whole thing. It was like a dust bath, and I missed it when I came back to New York, to this concrete jungle.”
The English costumes, designed masterfully by Phoebe De Gaye, certainly tell a story. When Blunt’s character arrives in the arid frontier, she’s unsuitably gussied up. Her baby pink Victorian garb is untarnished. But as she continues her quest for revenge, pinks turn to reds, reds turn to purples. “Phoebe said the reason for it was because ‘I want to see you get bruised by your experience’, like it’s a wound that gets red and then bruised. It’s just so clever and meaningful,” Blunt observed.
Eli is carrying his own emotional baggage. When asked what three words he would use to describe his character, Spencer said “brutal, lost and loving,” as he tries to find his place in the world. “I think he represents the old world, the new world and how we can adjust to it… The effects of manifest destiny,” he said. He had to do a lot of “reading between the lines” with the script because as viewers will discover, Eli’s dialogue can be as sparse as his surroundings. “It’s fun to play silent because I think sometimes you can convey more,” he said.
That scarcity is deliberate, said Blick, an homage to old Hollywood filmmaking. “I think it was Jimmy Stewart who said, ‘The first clue to a good Western is a slim script!’ I took that to heart. These were slim scripts, made even slimmer in the edit… The key to the story’s rhythm is Eli, he speaks to it, how he’d learn not to. The less said, the more an audience can hear what it is.”
While elements traditional to the Western genre do flow throughout the six episodes of The English—gun fights, horses galloping across an endless horizon and brutal killings—the series breaks the mold significantly as it leaves behind many of the hyper-masculine tropes of the past. Cornelia “is not tied to a tree needing to be rescued,” said Blunt, “she’s on this propulsive revenge mission, so you’ve got a female character who was outside of the norms of the genre, and you’ve got a really beautiful love story at the heart of it. As you say, the Western genre is normally quite masculine and brutal. And this has a tender center. It’s unusual.”
The English is available to stream on Prime Video. Here’s how to watch it for free.
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