Just when you think you’ve seen every variation on the true-crime drama, along comes a fascinating and heartbreaking specimen like Susan Edwards, whose fragile psyche informs every frame of HBO’s visually inventive four-part fact-based drama Landscapers. The title is a bit of a pun, referring to the long-hidden secret that her dreadful parents’ bodies are buried in their Nottinghamshire backyard garden, in holes dug 15 years earlier by Susan’s devotedly milquetoast husband, Chris.
It’s the landscape of Susan’s mind that proves most fascinating. Oscar and Emmy winner Olivia Colman continues to astonish with her emotional range in a peak performance of deep pathos as the childlike and chipper Susan, who regularly retreats from unpleasant reality into a delusional fantasy world informed by her beloved old movies, particularly Westerns with Gary Cooper. The stylized Landscapers, directed by Will Sharpe from Ed Sinclair’s script, likewise often shifts from color to black-and-white, with some flashbacks luridly tinted like a Hitchcock outtake and others filmed with a romantic sheen that would do Greta Garbo proud.
First seen living in shabby self-imposed exile in France, the nearly penniless Susan and Chris (an endearingly forlorn David Thewlis) eventually return to England to face the music but are so unassuming in appearance that they walk right past several waiting coppers before they’re noticed. The ensuing interrogation has its own surreal quality, breaking the fourth wall in startlingly theatrical dramatizations of the tragic events Susan and Chris have tried for so long to suppress.
Theirs is a sorrowful and sordid story, and they’re far from the hardened criminals the relentless police and media make them out to be. But as evidence mounts that suggests a more calculated motive, the series embraces artifice even more fully, moving from the trial in stark black-and-white to imaginary scenes from a Technicolor Western.
We’re told the couple’s fate from the beginning, and as the mood inevitably darkens, you can’t help but envy Susan’s ability to “see the beauty that exists in life…even when it is not there. That is the purpose of stories and the purpose of cinema. But more than this, it is the purpose of love. And to be loved is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Whatever you may conclude about their innocence or guilt, Landscapers leaves no doubt that their love and need for each other is genuine.
Landscapers, Limited Series Premiere, Monday, December 6, 9/8c, HBO