In the new HBO miniseries Landscapers, Susan (Olivia Colman) and Christopher (David Thewlis) are a bland, boring English couple residing in France. They have problems—she can’t stop buying art that they can’t afford and he can’t seem to get a job in order to pay off their mounting debt—but they love each other and seem to love their expat life, even when struggling to speak French. But in a moment of stress while on the phone with his stepmother, Christopher breaks and confesses the couple’s long-held secret: they’ve murdered Susan’s parents and buried them in the backyard. What’s more is that they did it 15 years ago. What follows is an interrogation—not only into these murderous claims, but into their psyches and their relationship as two deeply damaged people.
Based on a real couple who have maintained their innocence for all these years, Landscapers is far from a typical true crime drama. The four episode series is experimental in nature, unraveling and investigating these people in sequences that veer into fable, mixing truth with fantasy. Hailing from Ed Sinclair and Will Sharpe, the show is less interested in telling its story through a traditional crime genre lens and instead chooses to center it with romance at its heart.
Its production setup is also curiously reminiscent of HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage remake from earlier this year, where each episode began with a peek behind the curtains, following the actors as they arrived on set and walked to their mark before the director shouted, “rolling!” That method reminded viewers that the following hour was purely fictional before diving into the deep end of emotional storytelling.
In Landscapers, there is a similar suspension of reality. The series not only begins with a title card that announces “This is a true story” before the word “true” disappears, but it also constructs a behind-the-scenes type of narrative as Susan and Christopher begin to explain what happened on that fateful weekend, as well as their history as individuals and as a couple. And yet, in Landscapers, we aren’t being reminded that we are watching a piece of fiction; in real life, the couple’s motives were ultimately greedy (they drained her parents’ bank account in favor of traveling and buying celebrity memorabilia). Here, we’re watching as the main characters descend into stories of their own, casting themselves in the films they star in inside their heads. Susan and Christopher are grasping for some semblance of understanding of their predicament and of their lives and choose to do so via stylized frames that resemble French actor Gerard Depardieu’s films that the couple loves.
It’s a curious experiment that ultimately pays off, largely due to strong performances by Colman and Thewlis. Colman’s name has become synonymous with prestige, thoughtful filmmaking and awards, so it’s no surprise that her performance is something to talk about (she also starred in Sharpe’s prior experimental and emotional series Flowers). Here Colman is vulnerable and inviting, while also being infuriatingly loyal and a tad manipulative. Susan has some deep-seeded issues that come to the surface as her story is told, reworked, retold, and molded into an acceptable excuse—and Colman masters every part of the reshaped narrative.
Meanwhile, Thewlis perfects a timid man caught in an insidious lie who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. He pairs well against Colman in their fantastical daydreams of a cinematic life that cuts from black-and-white scenes and detached sets that replay their lives together, and then back into reality where he sweats in an interrogation room. In those set pieces where he sits alone at a table across from (distractingly glib) cops and without a lawyer, Thewlis goes from lamb to lion quickly, breaking into a passionate plea when he realizes that the police are circling Susan as the suspect.
With the romantic throughline, sometimes the fact that these are suspected murderers gets lost in the execution. As an audience we invest in their devotion to each other and feel a thrill (albeit a sad one) at every old Hollywood-style recreation of their memories, all at the expense of reality. The result is rich, thought-provoking art that makes Susan and Christopher strangely sympathetic, as they blend the lines of fantasy in order to keep the truth—whatever it might be—deeply buried.
Landscapers premieres Monday, December 6th on HBO and HBO Max.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Vulture, Salon, and Teen Vogue, and is featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
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