As a genre, true crime is about applying an understandable narrative to horrific acts that would otherwise be beyond comprehension. Although the events it depicts are disturbing, the genre is comforting because it relies on a structure that allows us to process the worst human nature and behavior.
The structure of the narrative is at the heart of HBO’s four-hour limited series Landscape gardeners. Writer Ed Sinclair and director Will Sharpe use classic Hollywood storytelling and aesthetics a 1998 double murder that fascinated Britain, as a platform for a mystery and a love story. This is true crime, but as told by unreliable characters and intended performative filmmakers. With the facts elusive, it is left to stars Olivia Colman and David Thewlis to maintain a level of emotional truth through what otherwise feels like a collection of entertaining narrative experiments.
The bottom line
Excellent leads prevent it from feeling too much like homework.
We meet Susan (Colman) and Christopher (Thewlis) as modest middle-aged British expats living in Paris and holding a secret. More than a decade earlier, they buried Susan’s parents in the backyard of their townhouse in Nottingham. Is the truth about what happened to Susan’s parents complicated or completely irrelevant? It is up to the viewers to decide, though Sharpe often reminds us that you should not look for such answers in a TV show.
Landscape gardeners is the second HBO project this fall – after Scenes from a marriage remake – to integrate behind-the-scenes footage of production. Letting the audience hear the director bark after action or follow actors from set to stage in a soundscape creates a Brechtian distance to the material, the kind of emotional removal that Susan is unable to achieve in her life. Susan loves the movies, especially everything with Gary Cooper, who becomes the paradigm for the stability and protection she longs for. She and Christopher had their first date for a Gérard Depardieu movie, and their ongoing correspondence with the French star is one of many oddities that captured the press, as revealed in excerpts from actual news coverage playing over the closing texts of each hour, offering another version of mediated “truth.”
We learn that Susan was a victim of childhood trauma, and although she has not had a complete break from the Nurse Betty-style reality, the films are the way she treats heightened emotions. In this regard, Sharpe (Louis Wain’s electrical life) uses cinematic tributes, as a musical uses songs.
There is a high degree of cinematic nerdiness in the way he and film photographer Erik Alexander Wilson play with the formal conventions of the art that Susan loves. In some cases, it’s as obvious as switching in and out of black and white or cropping image formats, from the so-called Academy relationship (for sequences framed as a nod to Fred Zinnemann’s work with Dinner) for more modern widescreen formats. When a Gary Cooper movie matches the main plot, Susan might imagine that she has switched into the vintage movie. Sometimes she’s stylized as one of Cooper’s female films, with Thewlis occasionally being made up to look more like the iconic star. In these cases, the visual games Sharpe plays are quite obvious.
Just as often, however, the helmsman indulges in his own tributes: in the British film duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, or the rough black-and-white of Richard Lester’s early films, or offers a revisionist image in the style of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, on Susan’s beloved Westerns. Sharpe’s approach is so meta that one can imagine how an annotated version of Landscape gardeners, where each reference is quoted on the screen, would somehow be less distracting. Still, if you follow the eccentric methodology of filmmakers, a big part of the fun is Landscape gardeners offers are the result of processing how the various stories Susan and Christopher tell – to themselves, during a police interrogation or in court – are presented.
The only person who has more fun than the director is perhaps his brother Arthur Sharpe, whose musical compositions flow through the cinematic epochs. There’s something pretty nice about how Christopher, less a moviegoer before he met Susan, has accepted cinematic grammar as his own language of love, shaping his romantic and protective instincts around his wife’s needs.
Christopher is willing to do anything to meet his wife on her level, but if you are not willing to do something similar (and maybe even if you are) with Landscape gardeners, it can feel like confusing homework.
It’s not always clear how Sharpe wants to use the Depardieu angle conceptually here, and it’s rarely clear how the police, busy preoccupied with their own sharpened genre exercise, fit in. Kate O’Flynn’s detective is the closest, the series comes to a protagonist on the law and order side of things, but as good as O’Flynn is, offering a version of female strength that is very different from Susan’s lacks the quarrel and teasing in her part of the story an obvious cinematic reference point. Maybe the police are supposed to be annoying because they demand a single answer to the mystery while the rest of the show defies dissolution.
Landscape gardeners is four episodes with deliberately different perspectives held together for the most part by its two main roles, which remarkably retains coherence through this maelstrom of pastiche. Colman, who starred in Sharpe’s dark bizarre comedy series Flowers, lands on a version of Susan that is easy to empathize with, if not always easy to sympathize with. Susan longs for the simplicity of being second-billed after the Gary Cooper type, and it breaks her heart every time her fantasies are punctured. But is she also dangerously manipulative? Colman provides space for interpretation. Thewlis has something calmer and more complicated to play, as a man who is probably a bit of a doormat longs to be the strong, silent type and ends up somewhere in the middle.
There is something interesting in the way Landscape gardeners draws viewers to see Susan and Christopher’s relationship as something sweet – couple goals, as meme can say – and also reminds us that there is murder involved. That combination suggests a British 50-year-old Badlands. Just know that if you want to see, you should invest more in deciding if that movie analogy is appropriate than in trying to figure out what happened to the two nerds buried in the backyard.
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