True Crime Tuesdays: Landscapers
Helen Archer | On 21, Dec 2021
“Prestige” true crime TV dramatisations are fairly few and far between. It’s a genre that is seen as low-rent, so getting big names attached doubtless proves difficult – especially when the dramatisation in question is looking at a fairly recent double murder. It’s one of the reasons that HBO and Sky’s Landscapers was so hotly anticipated, feeding into its inherent oddness – and that’s before we get into the tonal issues at play.
Directed by Will Sharpe and written by Ed Sinclair, it stars Sinclair’s wife, the much-admired Olivia Colman, along with the eminently watchable David Thewlis. They play Susan and Christopher Edwards, a middle-aged married couple who were convicted of killing Susan’s parents, Patricia and William Wycherley, and burying them in the garden of their Mansfield house – before emptying their bank accounts and claiming their pensions for 15 years, until the crime was eventually uncovered. The couple chose to spend the hundreds of thousands of pounds they stole from their victims on old Hollywood memorabilia, which seems to have informed the directorial direction more than any of the other facts behind the case. Their real-life flights of fancy – including correspondence with French actor Gerard Depardieu – have provided more in the way of inspiration than the morbid crime and cover-up.
The series is presented as a mixture between love story and dark comedy, evolving into a pastiche of various genres. The mash-up of styles is evident from the off. While it opens with a swooning opera score, with the clipped voice of Colman and the old-fashioned gallantry of Thewlis harking back to black-and-white films of the 1950s, it quickly turns to colour, with the pared-back set design of their small Lille apartment more reminiscent of Harold Pinter. Over the course of the four episodes, it veers wildly from epic to farce before, in the final episode, going all-out Western.
While the relationship between the two main protagonists is portrayed as a charmingly bygone romance, the police are much more broadly drawn, and the source of much of the “comedy”. The bluntly caricatured cops are played by Kate O’Flynn, Samuel Anderson and Daniel Rigby, who act as foils to the fantasy world that the Edwards created for themselves. They seem to have come straight from the TV series Fargo, in which David Thewlis has previously starred – a perfect vehicle for his physicality and deadpan method. And yet here the mismatch between the worlds is jarring rather than revealing. Olivia’s solicitor, meanwhile – an understated, warm performance by Dipo Ola – seems to belong to yet another series altogether.
These directorial choices continue throughout, serving only to distance the audience emotionally from the action. There is a constant breaking of the fourth wall, while scenes in police interview rooms transform into discussions in the pub. Actors move from one scene to the next by walking past cameras to enter a different set. Perhaps this is to remind the audience that this is all an artifice, although it’s not something we particularly need reminding of, given the surreal elements of the rest of the series.
In between these directorial flourishes, there are interrogations and eventually a trial, and yet the truth of the crime is never investigated in any great depth. This is more an opportunity to show off the creative talent of those behind the scenes than it is in dissecting the true story – or even the motivations – behind the double murder. There will also be some who are uneasy with the fact that the victims are treated as cyphers of evil, with little fact checking into the claims made by Susan and Christopher in an effort to explain and excuse their crime.
It’s strange that basic true crime gets such a bad name when the more arty versions can prove to be inherently more problematic. By the evidence of this limited series, it’s very easy to see why high-profile creatives generally steer clear. Perhaps it’s not the wisest idea to showcase your talents by hanging them on a grisly double murder and 15-year spending spree. To say Landscapers won’t appeal to everyone is probably something of an understatement. This pick-and-mix stylistic approach will put off some viewers, who prefer their dramatisations with slightly more cohesiveness and emotional connection.