By Peg Aloi
Landscapers is a true crime series that compellingly weaves together dream and reality.
I’ve been a fan of Will Sharpe ever since coming across the British series Flowers on Netflix several years ago. Starring Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt, it’s an odd story of a dysfunctional English family that consistently straddles the divide between very dark comedy and rather surreal urban drama, with tinges of horror. Sharpe co-wrote (with creator Ed Sinclair), directed and stars in the series, which has excellent performances from its entire cast, including Dame Harriet Walter (most recently seen in a fabulous recurring role in Killing Eve). Sharpe also directed and starred in the true crime-inspired Black Pond, and more recently helmed the critically acclaimed biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
Sharpe is once again working with Olivia Colman (The Crown, Broadchurch), starring opposite David Thewlis (I’m Thinking of Ending Things). These two veteran English actors are equally adept at drama and comedy, and both also have a gift for inhabiting oddball roles. Sharpe co-wrote HBO’s Landscapers with previous Flowers co-creator Ed Sinclair, who is Colman’s husband. The story is unusual and true: a middle-aged couple were arrested in 2013 after it was discovered they had buried two bodies in the back garden of a house in Nottingham 15 years earlier. We learn early on that the couple, Christopher and Susan Edwards, did indeed bury the bodies — of Susan’s mother and father. The circumstances and motivation behind the crime are explored across four episodes, alongside the police investigation.
As the series begins, Christopher and Susan are making the journey back to London from the Paris flat they’ve been living in for the last few years. They intend to confess before the law comes looking for them. They have learned that the police have been given stunning information about the buried corpses. There’s an inquest and the bodies are disinterred. They are somewhat vague about what took place, but the Edwardses don’t deny burying Susan’s parents. The motivations behind the double murder are mysterious; there are vague references to Susan’s traumatic childhood, events we gradually hear about in more harrowing detail as the Edwardses are questioned. Susan and Christopher are portrayed as somewhat naive people who are struggling to make it in a world filled with people who are shrewder and meaner than they are. The crime is exposed because, having reached a point of financial desperation (Chris is unable to find a job), they ask to borrow some money from Chris’s stepmother Tabitha (The Tragedy of Macbeth’s Kathryn Hunter). Chris tells Tabitha about the bodies and she doesn’t hesitate to inform the police: Chris takes the betrayal in stride, resigned to the belief that he and Susan could not keep their secret indefinitely.The facts of the murder are not in question: what propels the narrative forward is probing why they did it, and why they hid it for so long.
Some portions of this limited series play out as a sort of procedural crime drama. The actors playing the cops are all excellent, a group that includes Kate O’Flynn, Daniel Rigby (Flowers, Black Mirror) and Samuel Anderson. But stylistically and narratively, an overlay of fantasy and surrealism makes Landscapers rather hard to pin down, genre-wise. This is fairly typical of Sharpe, whose film and television work has been quite distinctive, to the point of being impossible to categorize. In this case, his unusual visual style works well with the script, which not only moves back and forth in time but often engages with the somewhat delusional fantasy lives of the protagonists.
Susan and Chris fell in love soon after they met and they didn’t delay their decision to marry. Susan was desperate to escape a troubled home life while Chris was anxious to take care of her. Both of them love old Hollywood movies, particularly American westerns, as well as French films that star Gerard Depardieu. They collect vintage memorabilia, even when they can’t really afford to do so. It becomes clear that the couple’s existence depends on their embrace of escapism; illusion fortifies their marriage against life’s harsh challenges. We see the real world consequences of their crimes closing in on them via scenes filled with Hollywood-style dreamy glamour. Sequences from old westerns are acted out, complete with sepia color palettes, horses, and costumes. It’s an unusual choice, and sometimes it feels at odds with this true crime narrative’s fairly realistic performances and gritty detailing. Still, there is no denying that these strange stylistic elements add an unnerving layer of pathos and power to this tale of real-life homicide. Coupled with the potent performances from the two leads and supporting cast, the combination of dream and reality make this series very compelling to watch from start to finish.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.