Note: only 3 of 4 episodes were made available for review.
At the beginning of Landscapers, a new Sky-HBO co-production starring Olivia Colman (The Crown, The Favourite) and David Thewlis (I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Harry Potter) as a real-life married couple who were found guilty of murder in 2014, a line of text appears, which reads: 'This is a true story.’ But moments later, the word ‘true’ disappears and we’re simply left with: ‘This is a story.'
It’s a subtle yet important detail which distills the essence of how creator and writer Ed Sinclair, who is also married to Colman, and his co-writer and director Will Sharpe (Giri/Haji, Flowers) have approached the story of Susan and Christopher Edwards.
The outwardly unassuming, anodyne pair were sentenced to a minimum of 25 years behind bars for killing the former’s parents, William and Patricia Wycherley, at their home near Mansfield. The grisly details are unsurprising – we live in a world fascinated by the dark and depraved and, as such, we are well-versed in its many forms – but the way in which they’re fed to us is a dramatic departure for the genre and one that is likely to polarise opinion.
The four-part series is as concerned with the act of storytelling as it is with Susan and Christopher's relationship and the case itself, which sets it apart from what we’ve come to expect from true-crime drama. It's not news to us that we're sitting down to watch a production rather than the real thing play out. We know that this series has been manufactured by creatives who have agonised over every detail, however minute, to ensure that their particular vision is realised. But that fact is of such central importance that Sinclair and Sharpe have chosen to overtly reference it from the word go.
In the opening scene, there is a director who shouts "Action!" and the scene springs to life – heavy rain descends, the hustle and bustle of Nottingham city centre commences – only after he commands it. In a later episode, we watch as the walls of one set are physically taken down by production staff, like something out of The Truman Show, while the characters on-screen walk across an expansive lot to another "location".
It is just one of myriad ways in which this story could be explored, in turn confronting the fact that all true-crime drama – from the heavily embellished and stylised to that which is verbatim and unadorned – is a work of construction at the mercy of those behind the camera.
That's also important in light of Susan and Christopher's insistence that they are not the cold, calculating, money-driven monsters that the police and subsequently the media painted them out to be – a stance that the pair maintain to this day. Their account contrasts drastically with how they have come to be recognised in popular culture and the series leans into that, drawing upon ghosts from Susan’s past and spending significant care sketching their love for and commitment to one another – the singular source of tenderness and warmth in a series peppered with largely unlikeable, uncharismatic characters that you don’t wish to spend any time with.
You are compelled by the hard facts of the case, but equally wrapped up in Colman and Thewlis’s performances as a couple whose affections run deep and are never in doubt. It mirrors the fluidity and influence of effective storytelling, and how we are easily seduced by varying accounts.
Susan’s love of cinema is also a key feature of Landscapers and adds vital context to her character. She seeks solace in French films, romantic reveries, black and white pictures and Westerns as a coping mechanism to shield her from her own childhood trauma and silence the growing panic she experiences following the police's intrusion into their lives. Susan wraps herself up in the dusty plains of the American midwest and gentle embraces between doe-eyed lovers and is able to stifle the noise, momentarily, as her reality makes way for imagination.
The real-world reporting regarding the couple's fascination with movies was tied to the vast sums they spent on memorabilia with the money they gained after the murders. It bolsters the image of Susan and Christopher as ruthless and predatory in their pursuit of wealth. But here, Susan's fascination with cinema is cast in a new glow and once again emphasises that distinct narratives have distinct preoccupations.
But while the approach that Sinclair and Sharpe have taken is undoubtedly an interesting one that they can seamlessly justify – there is nothing haphazard or gratuitous about the way Landscapers unfolds – true crime is at its most affecting and engaging when bells and whistles are cast aside and stories are given the space to speak for themselves. But this series is saturated with bells and whistles – the visual tactics employed by Sharpe are in-your-face and relentless – which often leave you feeling like you've entered a fever dream, and one that would work much better played out on the stage. Art house true crime isn't a genre we've ever come across, but it feels like the best way to describe Landscapers.
In a series teeming with characters, Susan and Christopher are the only people who feel flesh and blood. The drama is at its strongest during their interactions, which is predominantly when we're given respite from the circus unfolding around them and are able to fully access this narrative.
Despite its concerted effort to experiment and push boundaries, which is an act of creative bravery that deserves praise, its bombast is an unwanted and unnecessary distraction that makes the case and those at the heart of it feel secondary to the director’s box of tricks. When it comes to true-crime drama, as ITV has demonstrated with Manhunt, Des and Little Boy Blue, to name just a few, simplicity is key.
Landscapers premieres on Sky Atlantic and NOW on Tuesday 7th December. To see who else stars, here is the full Landscapers cast.