An Actress Like No Other In A Series Like No Other

Olivia Colman In HBO’s Unforgettable Landscapers

Who’s watching who? harpersbazaar.com

The era of Peak TV has witnessed an incredible amount of great roles for actresses. But when it comes to putting together a list of the most versatile actresses on television — by which I means the ones who have put together a period of sustained excellence in multiple roles — the list becomes much shorter. From those who have a storied career in film before coming to television, there’s Nicole Kidman, Regina King and Reese Witherspoon. For those who have worked almost primarily in television, there’s Uzo Aduba, Rachael Brosnahan, and Meritt Weyer. And somewhere in the middle ground between the two worlds is Olivia Colman.

Colman has only become widely known to American audiences over the past two years due primarily to her Oscar-winning role in The Favorite and her Emmy winning role in The Crown, where she played two very different versions of two different British monarchs. But Colman’s has been much more stories and even more incredible. Focusing solely on the past ten years, I first became aware of her in the incredible Broadchurch as Detective Miller, the hometown D.I who becomes enmeshed — in more ways than one — when a child is found dead in the title town. Then there was her role in AMC’s adaptation of The Night Manager in which she inhabited the role of Tom Huddleston’s handler so matter-of-factly I was stunned when I later read the novel and found out her character was originally man; I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing that role. On either side of that was her remarkable work as the stepmother in Fleabag a person so pleasant you couldn’t help but dislike her. Even her work as an aging Elizabeth II was remarkable in different ways than Claire Foy’s had been; Foy had done an excellent job in the first two seasons making the young queen seem likable and sympathetic; Colman by contrast spent much of her time making the character more detached and far less likable.

I am loathe to use clichés in my work such as “You’ve never seen So and So’ like this before, but after watching the first episode of her latest project — a collaboration between HBO and BBC called Landscapers, no other phrase seems to fit. Because watching Colman inhabit Susan Edwards, the fragile housewife at the center of a horrible mystery, you’ve simultaneously never seen her play a character like this and can’t imagine anyone else doing it.

I tend to ignore, except on very rare occasions, the true crime drama, either in documentary or fictionalized. I was tired of the concept after decades of bad TV movies and Lifetime projects to like it before and even the most well-structures rarely have anything different to say. The only reason I intended to watch this series was because of the two leads: Colman as Susan and David Thewlis as her husband Chris/ I’ve already expressed my admiration for Colman and Thewlis’ work in Season 3 of Fargo was one of the most remarkable portrayals of villainy I’d seen in years. But you watch it and it’s nearly impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen.

A large part of it is because this is one of the most astonishingly shot and directed series I’ve seen in all my years of watching TV. The Edwards’ are both huge cinema buffs and the direction reflects this by creating what is one of the most cinematic productions in years. It’s not just the constant used of fading between old films — some the cinemaphile will recognize; some they’ll wish they could — it’s the matter of the direction. When Chris reads out emails that he has sent to the police (yes, I’ll get to that) we not only have voiceovers but see him standing in the shot narrating his dialogue often complete being obscured by action in the screen. This is actually fitting because Chris is such a milquetoast character you get the feeling pretty much from the beginning that he’s a bystander in his own life, mostly subjugated by his desire to keep Susan content.

Susan in particular is completely inscrutable: so far you can’t tell if she’s so fragile Chris just wants to keep her placid or whether she’s genuinely delusional. It’s small wonder than when the two of them, having admitted their involvement in a decades old crime, walk into the railroad station to meet the police they literally walk past the cops at first. You can’t find yourself capable of believing the two of them could hide their diets from the world, much less the fact that they seem to have murdered Susan parents more than fifteen years ago and buried them in the back yard.

And yes ‘seem’ is very much the operative word. We know in the opening captions exactly what’s going to happen: the two of them are serving time in prison for this crime even though to this day they claim their innocence. But for a change, not even the creators of Landscapers give even the illusion that we are about to her the whole truth. The last title is “This is a story.” One can not help but be reminded of Fargo where we were told the following was a true story even though we knew it wasn’t. They admit they are involved — we see Susan admit something to a friend in the opening and Chris tell the same to his mother in a plea for money. But they seem just as convinced that if they ‘stick to the story’ they’ll come out fine at the other end. Are they lying themselves or have they been telling the same story for so long they ‘know’ it’s the truth?

The viewer spends so much of the episodes looking into the faces of Chris and Susan — it’s as if they’ve spent so much time looking into the movies that the idea of the fourth wall doesn’t exist to them. I don’t really expect the truth of the murders to be known at the end of Landscapers — the Edwards themselves may not know it. Perhaps that the reason I’m already such a big fan of this mini-series as it is (besides the exceptional, award worthy work of Thewlis and Colman). This may be the first ever true crime series where it tells us what a falsehood ‘true crime’ really is. All we ever have is a story.

My score: 4.75 stars.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.