Amazon Studios, 2022
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Movies and TV shows with intense action
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If you’re a fan of westerns, you know how often they center around a tough-as-nails protagonist, sometimes forced to fend for themselves. Ninety-nine percent of them tell a story through the perspective of a rugged White cowboy, rescuing a damsel in distress from outlaws or saving an entire town. While there are plenty of tales of vigilante justice, they rarely consist of any other main character than the typical perpetrators of self-righteous violence. Given the rigid characterizations we’re used to, Hugo Blick’s new mini-series The English provides a refreshing change of pace.
The English revolves around Cornelia (Emily Blunt), a British aristocrat venturing across the Great Plains in 1890 to avenge her son’s murder. Cornelia comes from privilege but is skilled in both riflery and archery. Along the way, she crosses paths with a Pawnee tribe member, Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), heading to Nebraska to claim land he is owed for his military service according to the Homestead Act. When Cornelia first happens upon Eli, she rescues him from a rancher attempting to kill him. While initially going their separate ways, they reunite and continue westward to complete Cornelia’s mission together.
For much of the series, Cornelia seems to be a fish out of water. She carries a large bag of cash with her in a satchel on her horseback carriage. As if that didn’t make her enough of a target, she wears fancy, pristine attire and skillfully applied cosmetics, not hiding her wealth at all. Every character around her carries with them the toll of physical labor or combat on their faces and clothes. This is in stark contrast to Cornelia’s prim and proper appearance that leads everyone to underestimate her, which she frequently uses to her advantage in the face of danger. Even after committing gruesome acts of violence, Cornelia seems troubled and guilt-ridden. In a universe with a desensitizing amount of violence, she serves as a presence right on the threshold of civilized and barbaric behavior.
In contrast to the expressive Cornelia, Eli remains a portrait of stoicism for much of the mini-series. Likely a product of his military training, Eli’s even-keeled nature conceals not only the grief he feels from lost loved ones, but the burden of the oppression he experiences as a Native American. Despite his service, he still finds himself as the game being hunted in many scenarios, surviving due to his own cunning and Cornelia’s loyalty.
The supporting characters stand much more in line with the typical Western personas. Most of the villains throwing up obstacles for Cornelia and Eli have the typical conniving motivations, out for riches (of which Cornelia has plenty), property or scalps to put on display (gross). Many either operate by the code of “kill or be killed” or have deep-seated bigotry toward Native Americans, to the point of engaging in grand, faux-philosophical discourse with the reluctant protagonists.
Unlike your typical vengeance story, the focus of The English turns out to be the bond forming between the two leads. The audience can determine this based not only on where the majority of the series is spent but where it picks up. We are thrust right into the midst of Cornelia’s journey, meaning we neither meet the villain that she is after nor see the inciting incident that spurred her on. Similarly, for Eli, his time with the military ends at the very beginning of the pilot, upon which he is reminded by a fellow service member, “In there, you’ve been one of us, but out here, you’re one of them.”
The series’ focus on the friendship rather than the vengeance itself could be construed as a statement on the unfulfilling nature of revenge. Though violence is as second nature to some as it is unthinkable to others, payback rarely satisfies the seeker as much as they expect it to. A hidden message in The English may be that the best way to heal from a painful loss is to foster relationships with those that are still here.
Though each belongs to a different broader genre, The English and Kill Bill are similar revenge stories. Cornelia, like The Bride played by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, lost a child and seeks retribution, killing many other villains in gruesome fashion along the way. Both characters are greatly underestimated by some of their foes. At the end of each of their journeys, the chase and eventual slaughter left both characters less content than the time they shared with their close companions along the way.