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Almost as soon as the words “this is a true story” appear on screen in the opening moments of Landscapers, one of them, “true,” starts to dissolve, fading away until it disappears completely. This Sky Atlantic series, written by Ed Sinclair and starring Olivia Colman, his wife, may be rooted in a real-life case, but it could hardly be further from the spate of perfunctory true-crime procedurals currently swarming the TV schedules: the “story” that follows has the unsettling quality of a bad dream, one minute realistic, the next almost hallucinatory.
When we first meet Susan (Colman) and Christopher Edwards (David Thewlis), they are living in a shabby pied-à-terre in Lille, wearing beige cardigans, eating tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches on “normal bread” and scraping by on stilted conversational French. “Vous pouvez répéter la question?” Christopher asks a prospective employer during one stomach-clenchingly awkward job interview scene.
One room of their apartment is a shrine to the macho heroes of old Hollywood westerns, filled with film ephemera and black and white portraits of Gary Cooper. In one early scene, Susan, played with that open, sunny guilelessness that Colman does so well, barely flinches before spending $175 on an original poster for High Noon, just like the one she had on her wall when she was a young girl, despite the couple being in patently dire financial straits.
It’s this “cash flow situation” that prompts Christopher to make a phone call to his stepmother back in England, which he begins with the ominous proviso “promise me you won’t tell the police.” Her next move, of course, is to do precisely that, because what he has relayed to her contains a macabre confession: “He buried his wife’s parents in a garden in Nottingham 15 years ago.” Susan and Christopher dutifully return to England using Eurostar tickets paid for by the police; when they arrive in custody, they must each relay their story. “Just tell them the truth,” Christopher tells his wife, a line that gets echoed and repeated over and over, sometimes sounding comforting and warm, sometimes sinister.
The truth, though, is a slippery thing, and Susan has a habit of turning scenes from her life into cinematic set-pieces that become more real to her than bare facts. As she retreats into this comforting world, scenes start to take on the aesthetic of the classic films that she loves, or are intercut with clips from the films themselves. When she reminisces about the beginning of her relationship with her husband, they become characters in a black and white romance, though sometimes Christopher is framed as a Cooper-esque cowboy hero, her model of masculinity, and Susan becomes the shrinking damsel. The events of the night her parents were killed play out alternately as Western, horror film or schlocky B-movie, complete with overblown dialogue and splatters of blood.
The couple, with their tendency to speak in cagily polite euphemisms (criminal charges would be “a pickle,” Susan is “fragile”), maintain their innocence during their respective interrogation scenes, led by Kate O’Flynn’s no bulls**t police officer, but a pattern of odd details soon emerges. Why did Susan open a joint bank account with her mother in the days after her death? And if their assertion that the killing was accidental is true, then why were both victims shot at the same angle?
When each of the Edwardses tells their story to O’Flynn’s character and her colleague (Samuel Anderson), their version of events plays out in a deliberately heightened reconstruction, with the pair of police officers often peering in through the open doors or windows of the set; sometimes the camera pans out to reveal the soundstage where it has been built.
There are plenty of other hyper-stylised moments - characters have a habit of addressing the camera while an ensemble carries on behind them, or standing to their feet after having been shot, performing their own deaths in different ways. Sinclair and director Will Sharpe rarely make the obvious choice when staging these scenes, which acquire a dreamlike logic of their own, working in tandem with clever production and sound design (like the gun shots that accompany anything from a fatal blow to pressing ‘send’ on a life-changing email). The result is often strange but always engrossing - what might otherwise have turned out as another based-on-a-true-story series is instead relentlessly original.
Landscapers is on Sky Atlantic and available to stream on Now from December 7