There was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year, but one stood out as striking enough to surpass everything else I saw. “The English” demonstrated a staggering visual sense of endless wilderness, an infinite natural backdrop both gorgeous and intimidating. It contrasts this with pernicious and ironic iconography that represents the destruction wrought by colonization and Westward expansion. The show’s use of natural light shows that few lighting and color-grading effects can match the simplicity of filming at certain times of day – even if that restricts the time you have to capture a scene.
The Western stars Emily Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke, who’s come to the American West to kill the man who killed her son. Chaske Spencer plays Eli Whipp, a Pawnee scout for the U.S. Army who seeks to live the rest of his life in quiet despite a world that’s determined to kill his people. Naturally, they link up, discover a shared past, and guns blaze.
“The English” doesn’t shy away from commenting on the unbridled savagery of European colonizers, assessing the genocidal history of “Manifest Destiny”, and linking Christian expansionism as directly responsible. Its main story may be equal parts romance, actioner, and tragic backstory, but “The English” picks apart imperialism and methods of forced assimilation thread by brutal thread on its way.
I do have a few issues with “The English”. It’s so eager to demonstrate its clear mastery over every era of Western that the pacing has a few hard shifts. A separate B-plot that eventually ties in hides its secrets and never gives its characters enough time to burn into memory, meaning every time we switch to it, it’s overly confusing. I normally love overly confusing, but I just had to shrug my shoulders and go with it. A few supporting performances here and there try way too hard and cross over into sketch territory. These are infrequent, but enough to notice.
As briefly as it can frustrate or confuse, these elements are ultimately pretty easy to set aside. What really lingers is the unparalleled cinematography, seeing for miles at times, the haunting use of light and shadow in others, and never letting go of a special kind of magic that feels truly cinematic and larger than life. I remember my breath being sucked away at one point as a horse and rider are silhouetted by the sunset in the dust they kick up, a shot that requires complex choreography yet was only possible to capture for a few minutes in a day before the sun changed angle.
If you appreciate the patiently developed tableau of classic cinema and can accept a great series that makes occasional storytelling mistakes, “The English” is a visual feast with superb leading performances and a driving sense of purpose. (Read the review.)
A close runner-up:
I could say many similar things for “First Love”, a Japanese romance series that tells the story of lovers in the 90s who reconnect today. Yae wanted to become a flight attendant and travel the world, but an accident prevented this. Now, she’s content working as a taxi driver, but struggles bridging the gap to her son Tsuzuru, who lives with his father. Her former lover Harumichi works as a security guard after serving as a pilot, but when they meet, she doesn’t remember him.
“First Love” is remarkable for director Kanchiku Yuri’s choice to film in the style of each narrative’s time frame. She echoes the dramatic approach of each era’s storytelling, the parallel stories told during the 90s and today changing down to shot choice, coloration, and even hints of picture clarity. As the flashback begins to catch up, these choices also change according to those times. It’s not the kind of thing that jumps out and hits you over the head; it’s used subtly and in service of the story.
The match of directing, cinematography, costuming, set design, and even dance choreography comes together to highlight the strange mix of quietly trying to find satisfaction in life against a backdrop of loneliness and disappointment. It serves as a phenomenal metaphor for Japan’s Lost Generation, which includes Gen X and Millennials who saw a stiff economic downturn as they entered the job market. Yae’s and Harumichi’s own stories and careers reflect this as well.
The wintry setting of Sapporo, Japan is used exquisitely, sometimes just in the daily routes Yae takes around the city, and sometimes more dramatically – as in a youthful confession of love in a blinding snowstorm. Kanchiku Yuri accomplishes one of the best directing jobs of the year, and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever she does next. On top of this, Mitsushima Hikari gives one of the best performances of the year as the adult Yae.
Like “The English”, “First Love” has long streaks where it feels like it’s the best show of the year, but it’s similarly undermined by some of its writing. It relies on a key plot device that’s cliché (at least among Western viewers) and large portions of its romances hinge on forms of stalking. It’s certainly not the first drama to treat stalking as romantic, but it feels like a giant rift to justify crossing, even if the other parts of the series are superb.
I’d still recommend it with this caveat. It’s OK to watch problematic things as long as we don’t cover over the problem or lie to ourselves about its presence. It is a remarkably filmed and acted series, but one that includes a necessary “Yes, but…”
Like I said, there was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year. The others at the top include:
“Pachinko” tells an elegant epic of Korean diaspora that survives genocide and war. (Read the review.)
“Cracow Monsters” is a sumptuously dark and dreary Polish modern fantasy with a silky sense of color and shadow. (Read the review.)
“Andor” is a moving embrace of 70s social sci-fi that may be the height of Star Wars storytelling. (Read the review.)
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