Two insanely good performances make the four-part HBO miniseries “Landscapers” special. You’ve got Olivia Colman at her best, which is saying something, playing a fragile, melancholy, wide-eyed woman who may have murdered her abusive parents. And you’ve got David Thewlis at his best, which is saying something, playing her docile husband, the guy who may have murdered and buried her abusive parents for her.
In a gentle duet, the two actors create a richly strange coupling of loners, a pair of lost souls broken together. It’s magical. By the fourth episode, as each of them takes the stand to testify in court, anguished and confused, I felt a full emotional understanding of their complex relationship in all its pathos, love, and lies. Colman and Thewlis let us see how and why these two delicate, damaged people find mutual solace by escaping into visions of old Hollywood — she in buying posters she can’t afford and rewatching “High Noon,” he in an unlikely correspondence with the French actor Gerard Depardieu. Their real lives have been riddled with isolation, injury, and grief.
“Landscapers,” which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, is based on the true and famous story of Susan and Christopher Edwards, unremarkable Brits who are living in Paris with their big secret when we meet them. Some 10 years earlier, one or both of them shot her parents and hid the bodies in the garden of her parents’ row house. For a while after the murders, they pretended her parents were alive so they could collect their pensions. Now, in financial desperation, Christopher phones his stepmother from France for cash and, in either intentional or unintentional self-sabotage, tells her about the bodies. She naturally calls the police, who unearth the corpses. The case blows up in the media, and the couple, convinced of their justifications, naïve enough to think others will not judge them for the crime, return to England to tell their side.
What really happened? “Landscapers” isn’t especially interested in the true-crime aspect of the Edwardses’ case so much as exploring the curious world of illusion and protection between the spouses. And that’s the aspect of the miniseries that some viewers might find disappointing and distracting, as I did. Writer Ed Sinclair (Colman’s husband) and director Will Sharpe have brought all kinds of meta-awareness and formal experimentation to their storytelling, so that at points we see the characters on a filming soundstage or fitted into a black-and-white genre film setting — a western, for instance, in which Susan and Christopher are engaged in a classic gunfight. While Susan and Christopher tell their versions of what happened to the cops and lawyers, we see them describing it within a re-creation of the murder scene.
In other words, we see a series of narrative tricks that hold some intellectual interest, and some visual appeal, too, but nonetheless seem unnecessary. With lead performances this real, it feels off to find these two odd birds inside such artificial and overly clever scenarios. Rather than being able to linger on the Edwardses’ idiosyncrasies, and on the brilliance of the actors evoking them, we’re suddenly having to think about the filmmakers and what they’re trying to say with their artful games.
The choice to play around is rooted in the couple’s shared obsession with vintage movies, so it’s not completely out of the blue. We’re seeing a formal expression of their inner lives, as they romanticize themselves or wait for the credits to fall on a happy ending. They’re living on a different plane of reality than most people, and we’re getting a glimpse inside of it. But rather than bringing us closer to them, the stylized sequences ultimately put a distance between us and them, a couple whose lives are as low key as the experimentation is bold. That makes it all the more notable that Colman and Thewlis register so strongly and memorably. Despite the many interruptions, they deliver.
Starring: Olivia Colman, David Thewlis, Kate O’Flynn, Dipo Ola, Samuel Anderson
On: HBO. Monday at 9 p.m.