In “Landscapers,” a true crime four-parter premiering Dec. 6 on HBO, the happily married Edwards couple played by Olivia Colman and David Thewlis can’t get their heads out of the 1952 classic “High Noon.”
Devoted movie memorabilia collectors, they have a particular interest in Westerns. Susan, the Colman character, developed a love for old movies and for Gary Cooper, among others, from her grandfather, the only one in her family who didn’t actively make her life hell. Christopher (Thewlis), like his wife, has a fondness for French cinema and for Gerard Depardieu, who appears to have been a surprisingly active correspondent with Christopher.
As we learn in the opening seconds of Episode 1, the Edwards pair were convicted of the crimes leading to the 1998 burial and 15-years-later discovery of the remains of Susan’s parents in a backyard Nottingham grave. The HBO series’ storytelling flourishes, the least of which are gimmicks, emerge more gradually. An interview in a drab police station turns into a fantasy sequence, where investigating law enforcement officers become pubgoers and onlookers in a first-date flashback.
Later, the fantasy/reality mashups in “Landscapers” go a little further. At one point all the major characters participate in an errant black-and-white reimagining of “High Noon” and other Westerns, retooled for the saga of Susan and Christopher.
It’s “High Noon” above all that creates the stylistic pathway taken, for better or worse, by series creator and screenwriter Ed Sinclair (Colman’s husband), along with director Will Sharpe (who did “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”). As “Landscapers” weaves flashbacks of the couple’s early, pre-headlines years in England with their later, furtively relocated years in France, we follow the police investigation and subsequent murder trial. Images and footage derived from “High Noon” likewise weave in and out of the action, filtered through the fraught memories and addled imaginations of these two. At one point, the faces of Thewlis and Colman are superimposed digitally on the bodies of Cooper and Grace Kelly.
Does it work? Near the end of the first episode, I thought: They’re going to goof around like this for three more? Even when it gets better, I kept wanting less conceptual competition for the terrific work of Colman and Thewlis, playing almost-certainly idealized and softened renditions of the real-life subjects. As the investigating detective constable, the fabulous Kate O’Flynn is equally formidable, her unblinking deadpan giving way, at strategic dramatic points, to glimmers of frustration.
Director Sharpe approaches this material the way many directors have handled the theme of movie love and true crime in the past: He turns “Landscapers” into an expression of troubled psyches as flashes of the movie running in their heads. Episode 4 suffers from a surfeit of too-muchness. Already this season, Kenneth Branagh has come down with a case of “High Noon”-itis, in his movie-fed childhood memoir “Belfast.”
The actors cut through the clutter, even if “Landscapers” can’t quite pull off its intended swings from ironic-comic referencing to Susan’s anguished revelations of her childhood. Sometimes you want a peculiar true crime retelling to let the actors ride into town and take care of business without a lot of frills. On the other hand: I’d happily see “Landscapers” again for the way Colman’s Susan, in custody and speaking to the prison employee retrieving her untouched breakfast tray, says, by way of cordial apology: “Scrambled eggs — they’re not easy to do in bulk, are they?”