Olivia Colman and David Thewlis are riveting as a seemingly milquetoast, middle-aged British couple who are accused of murdering her parents and burying them in their own backyard in HBO’s four-episode miniseries “Landscapers.” What’s most interesting about the story of Susan and Chris Edwards, however, isn’t the murder, but the lies they tell about it to preserve the love between them. It’s as epic as the romances in the classic Westerns and French films that provide them a necessary escape from the complications of their real lives.
From the beginning, “Landscapers” makes its stance clear on the trueness of this true-crime story: “This is a true story,” appears on the screen, and then the word “true” disappears. When we meet Susan and Chris, they’re barely scraping by while living in Paris. Susan is charging expensive vintage movie posters to a variety of credit cards, and Chris is trying desperately to get a job. The one bright spot: They appear to be maintaining a friendly, ongoing correspondence with the actor Gerard Depardieu. Things take a turn when Chris loses out on yet another job and snaps, calling his stepmother, Dr. Tabitha Edwards, to confess to burying his wife’s parents in a garden in Mansfield 15 years prior.
“Landscapers” takes a light approach to its dark subject matter. There is an inherent humor in the Edwardses’ practical and polite response to being turned in by Tabitha. “I asked her not to tell anyone,” Chris calmly explains to Susan when they’re contacted by police. “I’m as disappointed as you are.” Instead of running, as one might expect, the Edwardses honor the train tickets purchased for them by Mansfield police and arrive in England as promised. They remain unfailingly proper and respectful as they’re taken into custody and held in separate cells. “Scrambled eggs, they’re not easy to do in bulk, are they?” Susan says with sincere compassion for the cook who served a subpar breakfast in jail.
As the Edwardses begin telling their story — separately — to police, the conflicting narratives take on the qualities of the films they love, like “High Noon” and “The Last Metro.” Sometimes, the cameras roll past the scene’s ending, so we may see actors walk off the edge of a soundstage set or get up off the ground after being shot in a scene. This approach could prove distracting or overwhelming or just plain gimmicky in the wrong hands, but it works thanks to Colman and Thewlis’s excellent performances, which act as an anchor; the direction by Will Sharpe, known for his work on the dark British comedy series “Flowers,” also starring Colman; and the clever script by Ed Sinclair, Colman’s husband. Could this technique be cut back for clarity on a few occasions? Perhaps, but it also makes this mystery with no definitive answers not just filmable, but riveting, taking us into Susan’s vivid mind and making us root for the Edwardses despite their possible crimes.
Definitive answers are not the point here. Instead, we come out of the four episodes with sympathy for nearly everyone involved — everyone with the notable exception of the murder victims themselves, who appear to have mistreated Susan severely for her entire life. But the script allows for a full portrayal of the detectives investigating the case as well, particularly Kate O’Flynn as the lead interrogator. Still, even as you root for the detectives to crack the case — just because you want answers as much as they do — they are mere pawns in the grand story of Susan and Chris’ love. They are the very definition of ride-or-die. The series makes it a point to depict the Edwardses as in their own world: “They’re not built for this one,” stepmother Tabitha says, “are they?”
Chris provides the thesis statement for that world: “Nobody’s beyond help in this world,” he says. “That’s the whole point of this world.”
“Landscapers” so effectively portrays the Edwardses’ world that we want to believe their (purported) lies as much as they do. Are they lying? A revelation about their Gerard Depardieu correspondence provides a possible clue. But maybe their world is the better one.