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Susan (Olivia Colman) and Chris Edwards (David Thewlis) are on the run in France. They are a curious, somewhat fusty middle-aged couple, in old coats and sensible footwear. Money is tight. Chris’s faltering French isn’t much help in job interviews. But although they’re desperate, they still have each other, love that they express in unusual ways. “I’d eat a croissant out of a bin for you,” Susan says. She still has her beloved films, especially westerns, somewhere to escape to when it all gets too much. But the pressure is mounting, and her love of old Hollywood memorabilia is burning through their cash reserves. They can’t run forever. Are they murderers? They don’t seem sure themselves.
Back in England, however, the questions are mounting. After a tip-off via Chris’s stepmother, Tabitha Edwards, Nottingham police are dispatched to a suburban house, where they discover two bodies buried in the back garden. The condition of the corpses suggests they died around the time that Susan’s parents, Patricia and William Wycherley, went missing in 1998. With nowhere left to go, perhaps it is time for Chris and Susan to come home and face the music. “I think the more we run, the more guilty we’ll seem,” Chris says.
Landscapers is written by Ed Sinclair, an actor and writer, who is married to Colman. It is based on a true story. In June 2014, the real-life Chris and Susan were jailed for life for murdering Susan’s parents and making off with £300,000 of their assets. In less skilful hands this could be a classic true-crime retelling of a grim episode, but this HBO and Sky four-parter has loftier ambitions. If Sinclair’s bold concept and script lift it well above the average crime drama, the direction, by Will Sharpe, is what makes Landscapers unforgettable. This is a murder mystery that is also a comedy, a love story, a meditation on creative work, and somehow, despite the subject matter, a celebration of English eccentricity.
Sharpe is establishing himself as a kind of Swiss Army-auteur, able to turn his hand to every aspect of filmmaking. He won a Best Supporting Actor Bafta for his performance in Giri/Haji, and a Best Scripted Comedy Bafta for Flowers, the series he wrote and co-starred in – again with Colman, about a depressed family. The grown-ups are noticing. His next directorial feature is The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy and Andrea Riseborough.
Here, as in Flowers, you get the sense that every frame has been created with monomaniacal attention to detail. Landscapers is experimental in form and tone, slipping into monochrome for romantic gazes, breaking the fourth wall for exposition scenes, hopping around through time and space, showing us some of the machinery of cinema. But it’s not just those flourishes. The interiors have a rococo richness of texture, with not a picture or light or trinket unaccounted for. Even a shuffle through a train station becomes strangely gorgeous. You’re left with an inkling of how Wes Anderson’s work might looked if he had spent his childhood watching Cash in the Attic.
Colman and Thewlis turn Susan and Chris into a kind of Barbour-clad Bonnie and Clyde, entwined to the end. They get plenty of screen time, and anchor the more out-there moments in patient, believable characters. Her devotion lapses into neediness; his desire to protect her blinds him to the direness of their situation. We feel sorry for both of them, no small feat when you remember the grisly real-life events. But there are plenty of other strong performances, especially Kate O’Flynn as DC Emma Lancing, one half of a sardonic, snappy police duo with DC Paul Wilkie (Samuel Anderson). It might be based on real events but Landscapers is really about lies. The lies criminals tell police to stay free for another day; the lies artists tell in the hope of uncovering some obscured truth; the lies we tell the people we love in the hope of keeping them happy, or maybe, one day, understanding them.
‘Landscapers’ premieres on Sky Atlantic and NOW on Tuesday 7 December 2021