I’ve been on a bit of a mystery-crime-drama kick this year: Twin Peaks, True Detective, and now Top of the Lake, a six-part miniseries created and written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. Top of the Lake is yet another example of how TV is maturing; in many ways television is now a more effective medium for storytelling than film. As with True Detective, I was a little disappointed with how Top of the Lake ended. However, overall I found this series beautiful – in a bewitching sort of way.
Top of the Lake is set amidst New Zealand’s stunning South Island scenery, in a small town called Lake Top. The series begins with a haunting sequence in which 12-year-old girl Tui (Jacqueline Joe) walks into a freezing lake. Later, she is discovered to be pregnant, and then she just disappears. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss of AMC’s Mad Men) is back in town from Sydney to visit her dying mother, and she becomes drawn to Tui’s case.
Jane Campion – perhaps best known for her 1993 film The Piano, for which she won the Palme d’Or at Cannes twenty years ago – has lately set her creative sights on TV. “Television is the new frontier,” she says in this interview with The Telegraph. Campion recalls seeing an episode of HBO’s Deadwood, and being excited by it. “There’s a revolution going on,” she felt. For Top of the Lake (a co-production of the Sundance Channel in the US, UKTV in Australia and New Zealand, and BBC Two) Campion was given free rein, no constraints; a freedom seldom offered in film. Campion used this opportunity to tackle some sensitive topics, including underage pregnancy, incest, and suicide. Perhaps most importantly, however, Campion uses Top of the Lake to explore rape culture, and she pulls no punches (or broken bottles, for that matter).
I liked a lot of things about Top of the Lake. From the very beginning, the atmosphere of this series is noticeably different; New Zealand’s landscape is beautiful, but there is a chill to it, a stillness that is somehow both ghostly and glaringly real. The music – by Mark Bradshaw – adds wonderfully to this ethereal feeling. Top of the Lake takes its time (another advantage of being a six hour miniseries instead of a two hour film), but never feels boring. I also appreciated the fact that this series is so female driven (in a much more real and important way than a series like Girls is), and that it confronts the issue of rape so openly.
Perhaps the best thing about Top of the Lake, however, is its performances. Elisabeth Moss leaves Peggy Olsen completely behind as she takes on the role of slowly unravelling detective Robin Griffin (her accent is almost perfect), and David Wenham is similarly impressive as Detective Al Parker. The best performance, however, comes from Peter Mullan. His portrayal of Matt Mitchum – the local drug lord – is terrifying, complex, and very sad.
I (emphatically) did not like GJ (played by Holly Hunter). I understood that she was supposed to come across as something more than an annoying quasi-enlightened new-age guru: lines like “That one wants to help Africa” and “Just get me away from these crazy bitches” did endear me to her at times. However, she was still overall just a new-age guru with a couple of good lines.
The last episode of Top of the Lake didn’t feel quite right to me. In many ways it was more satisfying than True Detective – most of the threads did tie together at the end of Top of the Lake. However, there were some subplots that I felt were not adequately explored or concluded (the American woman looking for a seven-minute fuck, among others). Mostly, though, the end (unlike the rest of the series) came too quickly, and felt a little unbelievable.
Top of the Lake tries a bit too hard – at the end, especially – to be something serious; to be something dramatic and meaningful. Perhaps GJ does have a point when she says “die to … your idea of yourself. What’s left?” Maybe Top of the Lake needs to die to its idea of being clever or smart, and just be what it is: a visually stunning, powerful, mysterious piece of television.
Top of the Lake first aired in 2013. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation was initially set to co-produce the series, but pulled out when Elisabeth Moss was chosen for the lead role over an actor from Australia or New Zealand.
Top of the Lake – watch the trailer