The omnipresence of Olivia Colman has been a truly happy development in recent years.
Since her shock Oscar win for “The Favourite” in early 2019, Colman has appeared in films including “The Father” and “The Lost Daughter” and, among several other TV projects, one season of “Fleabag” and two of “The Crown.” And while at times in that latter series she seemed to be withholding her broad-ranging abilities towards the absurd, her willingness to go anywhere for a laugh, that suppression worked towards a sense of her character, Queen Elizabeth II, as duty-bound.
Now, on the HBO limited series “Landscapers,” director Will Sharpe gives Colman a stage as big as her dramatic imagination. Indeed, more so even than in her prizewinning role as a tempestuous monarch in “The Favourite,” Colman’s character’s mood sets the temperature here. As Susan Edwards, a woman who was, in real life, convicted of the murder of her parents, Colman plays a woman mad for the movies. And we see her imaginings of her traumatized life processed through the language of classic cinema.
Susan lived her life in a vexed partnership with Christopher (David Thewlis, excellent) whom we see as better able to understand objective reality than his spouse — but also a loving enabler. We meet the couple years after the murder they’re eventually imprisoned for having committed, and follow them through a legal investigation that brings Susan to the edge, and eventually, past it. “I’m not fragile,” Susan tells investigators, in a black-and-white scene. “I’m broken, so you can’t hurt me.” She’s conjuring the strength of a heroine of classic cinema; elsewhere, she envisions herself as a star of Westerns, and details about the couple’s social, or parasocial, relationship with Gerard Depardieu haunt the story.
All of this is more cerebrally interesting than it is moment-to-moment gripping. Colman’s fleeting moments of being able to see herself, and the longer stretches of denial, are wonderful to watch, as is the work being done in counterpoint by Thewlis. But the legal-investigation plotline lags (despite strong work from supporting players including Kate O’Flynn and Dipo Ola). And the shifts between cinematic styles, novel as they are, seem ultimately like a flashy and complicated way to express that Susan was unknowable to herself. That’s a point made effectively, then somewhat punishingly. It’s not consistently clear what a four-episode length adds to a story centering a character who’s better able to see herself in new lights than to show us new sides of herself. Within those differing lights, though, Sharpe’s direction is clever and strong and the leads’ performances are well-crafted; “Landscapers” is worth sampling. Those for whom its shifting frames of reference present a visual game of special interest will likely know early on that this show is for them; for the rest of the audience, an Olivia Colman-David Thewlis acting duet is nothing to sneeze at.
“Landscapers” debuts Monday, Dec. 6, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.