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Coming out Colton
Nothing lifts the spirits quite like seeing two magical words in the cast list for a series: Olivia Colman. Even in a decade that includes an Oscar win – for The Favourite – she has seemed to save her very best for the small screen.
Landscapers, which was created by her husband Ed Sinclair, is based on a true story of a mild-mannered British couple, Susan and Christopher Edwards (Colman and David Thewlis), who have gotten into what Susan, with some understatement, calls “a bit of a pickle”.
While they live a quiet life in France, obsessing over old films and spending what little money they have on rare posters, their past begins to catch up with them.
A tip-off has revealed to British police that Susan’s parents, long presumed to have gone on their own travels (to Ireland in the real-life story) have actually been rotting in their back garden for the best part of the last decade, and the police demand Susan and Christopher come home to face the music.
After lengthy discussions they agree to take the Eurostar back to England, where the police are waiting. At first Susan claims to have shot the parents during a row in which it emerged her mother had turned a blind eye to her father’s sexual abuse of her as a little girl.
But the police are determined to prove she and Christopher acted in concert and the interrogations become stylised theatre pieces in which the fourth wall is broken and various versions of events are directed and changed, in abrupt little takes, by the characters themselves.
This approach is good at capturing the ambiguities of subjective truth from various perspectives, but it’s the more conventionally staged scenes and the acting itself that make this series special.
The Edwards are like characters from an Alan Bennett play – there is a mildly comedic tone to many of the scenes – caught in the machinery of a plot that seems too sinister for them to be really culpable.
When they arrive back to England they cower on the platform, quietly squeezing each other’s hands, while a phalanx of armed police trains guns on them.
When Susan is handed her tray through the door of a prison cell, she brightly and without irony says, “my compliments to the chef”. Her affability gives way to wild and ragged grief – shown in extreme close-ups – as the interrogations move on.
The episodes end with contemporaneous news clips, which serve as reminders that this is a true crime story, and of how dramatic a subversion of that genre this strange and brilliant series is.
I approached Netflix’s Coming Out Colton with a sense of curiosity and caution.
The show covers the period when Colton Underwood, the luminously gorgeous former professional (American) footballer and star of The Bachelor, came out, first in private (or as private as it could be with cameras present), and then in a dramatic interview on Good Morning America, with Robin Roberts.
It’s easy to be sceptical about a man trading one reality TV identity (heterosexual dream husband) for another (LGBT role model), particularly with the knowledge he had a restraining order filed against him by Cassie Randolph, the woman he eventually chose on The Bachelor, and the fact he is claiming to be still a virgin (he’s nearly 30 during the period in the film).
But there is a kind of core honesty to this series that cuts through such scepticism. Underwood explains the obsessive behaviour with Randolph as part of a desperate, last-ditch effort to lead a ‘straight’ life.
The actual coming-out scenes seem authentic in that they don’t always offer redemption, outright rejection or easy answers. His former coach, whom Underwood describes as “a second Dad”, is cool and distant and certainly doesn’t own the atmosphere of homophobia that pervaded the dressing room.
Underwood’s former pastor douses him in sugary Christian condescension of the ‘hate the sin not the sinner’ variety. As with The Bachelor, the tension throughout isn’t so much the emotional journey as whether Colton will finally have his cherry popped – or at the very least, take his shirt off.
Disappointingly (and despite all the efforts of the gay men he meets) neither of these things come to pass, but beneath the megawatt smile and tanned muscles this series still has a beating heart.
Imagine all-out war played out in snippy comments, and you’re getting close to understanding the dynamic between Fleabag and her ‘Godmother’ – played by Colman, who said she wanted to portray “a bitch”. She delivers a masterclass in vengeful passive aggression.
Apparently Colman was told to amp down her famous ability to emote in order to capture the restraint of the queen and, while her face hardly moves, we see entire oceans of grief churn in her eyes. It may be the definitive TV version of Queen Elizabeth II.
Colman was already familiar with cringe comedy thanks to her turn on The Office, but this memorably funny role – her killer lines include calling her boyfriend a life support machine “because he sucks the life out of people” – made her a cult favourite.