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As a genre, true crime is about applying a comprehensible narrative to horrifying acts that otherwise would be beyond comprehension. Even as the events it depicts are disturbing, the genre is comforting because it relies on a structure that allows us to process the worst of human nature and behavior.
The construction of narrative is at the heart of HBO and Sky’s four-hour limited series Landscapers. Applying modes of classic Hollywood storytelling and aesthetics, writer Ed Sinclair and director Will Sharpe use a 1998 double murder that fascinated the U.K. as a platform for a mystery and a love story. This is true crime, but as recounted by unreliable characters and calculatedly performative filmmakers. With the facts elusive, it’s left to stars Olivia Colman and David Thewlis to maintain a level of emotional truth through what otherwise feels like a collection of amusing narrative experiments.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Monday, December 6
Cast: Olivia Colman, David Thewlis, Kate O’ Flynn, Dipo Ola, Samuel Anderson, David Hayman, Felicity Montagu and Daniel Rigby
Creator: Ed Sinclair
Director: Will Sharpe
We meet Susan (Colman) and Christopher (Thewlis) as unassuming middle-aged British expats living in Paris and harboring a secret. More than a decade earlier, they buried Susan’s parents in the backyard of their Nottingham row house. Is the truth about what happened to Susan’s parents complicated or entirely irrelevant? That’s for viewers to decide, even as Sharpe frequently reminds us that you shouldn’t be looking for such answers in a television show.
Landscapers is the second HBO project this fall — after the Scenes From a Marriage remake — to integrate behind-the-scenes footage of the production. Letting audiences hear the director bark for action or following actors from set to set within a soundstage creates a Brechtian distance from the material, the kind of emotional remove that Susan is unable to achieve in her life. Susan loves the movies, particularly anything with Gary Cooper, who becomes the paradigm for the stability and protection she craves. She and Christopher had their first date at a Gérard Depardieu film, and their ongoing correspondence with the French star is one of many oddities that captivated the press, as revealed in excerpts of actual news coverage that play over the closing credits of each hour, offering another version of mediated “truth.”
Susan, we learn, was the victim of childhood trauma, and while she hasn’t had a complete Nurse Betty-style break from reality, the movies are the way she processes heightened emotions. In this respect, Sharpe (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) uses cinematic homages the way a musical uses songs.
There’s a high degree of cinematic nerdiness to the way he and cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson play around with the formal conventions of the art Susan loves. In some cases, it’s as obvious as shifts into and out of black-and-white or the cropping of aspect ratios, from the so-called Academy ratio (for sequences framed as a nod to Fred Zinnemann’s work on High Noon) to more contemporary widescreen formats. When a Gary Cooper movie corresponds to the main action, Susan might imagine herself swapped into the vintage film. Sometimes she’s stylized like one of Cooper’s female foils, with Thewlis occasionally made up to more closely resemble the iconic star. In these instances the visual games Sharpe is playing are quite clear.
Just as often, though, the helmer is indulging in tributes of his own: to the British filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger or the gritty black-and-white of Richard Lester’s early films, or offering a revisionist take, in the vein of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, on Susan’s beloved Westerns. Sharpe’s approach is so meta that one can imagine how an annotated version of Landscapers, in which every reference is cited onscreen, would somehow be less distracting. Still, if you follow the filmmakers’ eccentric methodology, a lot of the enjoyment Landscapers offers is the result of processing how the different stories Susan and Christopher are telling — to themselves, under police interrogation, or in court — are presented.
The only person having more fun than the director might be his brother Arthur Sharpe, whose musical compositions flit through the cinematic eras. There’s something rather lovely about how Christopher, less a moviegoer before meeting Susan, has accepted cinematic grammar as his own love language, shaping his romantic and protective instincts around his wife’s needs.
Christopher is willing to do anything to meet his wife on her level, but if you aren’t willing to do something similar (and maybe even if you are) with Landscapers, it can feel like confusing homework.
It isn’t always clear how Sharpe wants to use the Depardieu angle conceptually here, and it’s rarely clear how the police, busy in their own heightened genre exercise, fit in. Kate O’Flynn’s detective constable is the closest the series has to a protagonist on the law-and order side of things, but as good as O’Flynn is, offering a version of female strength very different from Susan’s, the bickering and bantering in her portion of the story lack an obvious cinematic point of reference. Maybe the police are intended to be annoying because they demand a single answer to the mystery, while the rest of the show defies resolution.
Landscapers is four episodes of intentionally disparate perspectives held together mostly by its two leads, who remarkably maintain consistency through this maelstrom of pastiche. Colman, who starred in Sharpe’s darkly bizarre comedy series Flowers, lands on a version of Susan who’s easy to empathize with, if not always easy to feel sympathy toward. Susan craves the simplicity of being second-billed to the Gary Cooper type, and it breaks her heart every time her fantasies are punctured. But is she also dangerously manipulative? Colman allows for some room to interpret. Thewlis has something quieter and more complicated to play, as a man who’s probably a bit of a doormat, yearns to be the strong, silent type, and ends up somewhere in the middle.
There’s something interesting in the way Landscapers pulls viewers toward seeing Susan and Christopher’s relationship as something sweet — couple goals, as the meme might put it — and also reminds us that there’s murder involved. That combination suggests a 50-something British Badlands. Just know that if you’re going to watch, you should invest more in deciding if that movie analogy is apt than in trying to unravel what happened to the two geezers buried in the backyard.
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