It’s Raking a Murderer.
A seemingly harmless, nondescript, socially invisible, middle-aged British couple is accused of a double murder and of burying the bodies in their backyard, and they’re raked over the coals by investigators who are equal parts baffled and intrigued in the four-part HBO dramatic series “Landscapers.”
And with Olivia Colman and David Thewlis playing that aforementioned couple — well, there’s as good as you’d imagine them to be and then some.
“Landscapers” is based on a notorious and sensational real-life case from 1998, when Susan and Christopher Edwards were charged with shooting and killing her parents 15 years earlier and maintaining the ruse they were still alive, for financial gain. Christmas cards were sent, benefits claims were made — and Susan and Christopher even sold the townhouse where the bodies were buried in the backyard. And then it all came crashing down on them.
We’re immediately tipped off this is going to be anything but a straightforward telling of the tale with an opening title card that says, “This is a true story,” as the word “true” begins to fade and then disappears.
Indeed, in the hands of writer Ed Sinclair (Colman’s husband), director Will Sharpe and some marvelously creative cinematography, editing and production design, “Landscapers” is a meta movie-within-a-movie (or should we say movie within a streaming series) experience, reflecting how Susan and Christopher lived within a cinematic, delusional, reality-bending world. Every time Christopher tells Susan, “Just tell the truth,” we know what’s coming next is most likely NOT going to be the truth.
We’re introduced to Susan (Colman) and Christopher (Thewlis) as they’re barely scraping by in a flat in a town in northern France. Christopher can’t find work, but Susan is still indulging in her relatively pricey Hollywood fantasies, spending money they don’t have on a rare edition of a “High Noon” poster to add to her collection of movie memorabilia, with her favorite star being Gary Cooper. (The couple is also carrying on a correspondence with the actor Gerard Depardieu, which they find exciting and glamorous but comes across as kind of sad and perhaps not even real.)
In a moment of frustration after yet another failed job interview, Christopher calls his stepmother and reveals a secret: He and Susan buried his wife’s parents in a backyard garden in Nottingham a decade and a half ago. Christopher gently pleads with this stepmom not to tell anybody, but she contacts the authorities, who are at first skeptical but, in rather rapid fashion, discover there are indeed two bodies buried in that little garden. What in the world …
Christopher and Susan volunteer to take the train to Mansfield and turn themselves in — and that’s when “Landscapers” kicks into another, surreal gear, as the couple is separated and interrogated separately, with each weaving a tale about Susan’s monstrous mother shooting Susan’s abusive father and Susan then killing her mother, all while Christopher was supposedly out of town. (He helped Susan bury the bodies a full week later, or so they claim.)
With a terrific Kate O’Flynn as the lead investigator determined to get to the truth, “Landscapers” takes one flight of fancy after another, as the story of Susan and Christopher’s romance, and eventual murders, is told in the form of an old-fashioned, black-and-white Western and then a gory B-movie horror film.
Characters are shot dead — and then get up when the scene is over. On other occasions, characters address the camera directly, and we see the cast and crew on the actual location sets and soundstages of the series.
At times, the trickery and the cinematic flourishes can be a bit much, and we find ourselves pining for the “real” story so we can learn what actually happened on that fateful night.
Always, though, Thewlis and Colman are amazing, whether they’re quietly but passionately declaring their love for one another while under investigation or appearing as idealized versions of themselves in the fantasy sequences.
As for Depardieu … let’s just say he plays a key role and yet no role at all. Such is the way with “Landscapers.”