New Zealand director Jane Campion’s films, such as The Piano (for which she became the second female Best Director Oscar nominee ever, and won for Best Original Screenplay) and Bright Star, divide viewers between those who admire her rich, challenging characters and stories, breath-taking cinematography and complex but unapologetically feminist perspective, and those who find her pretentious and baffling. I’m firmly in the first camp, and was eager to watch the director’s first television series, Top of the Lake, when it showed on BBC2 earlier this month.
Top of the Lake is set in the small New Zealand town of Laketop, a place so stunning that a local women’s refuge is founded on a plot of land called Paradise. But the far from angelic nature of some of the local residents is chillingly illustrated when twelve-year-old Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) is found to be five months pregnant. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) tries to convince her to say who did this to her, while her crime lord father Matt (Peter Mullan) arranges an abortion. Then Tui disappears, and Robin seems to be the only one interested in finding out where she is, whether she ran away or was kidnapped, how it connects to her pregnancy, and with overcoming the increasingly long odds on finding her alive. Robin’s obsession with the case threatens her new career and engagement in Australia, as well as her relationship with her dying mother, stirs up dark secrets in her past, and brings her into conflict with Matt and uneasy alliances with Tui’s half-brother Johnno (Thomas M. Wright) and local detective Al (David Wenham).
In the hands of a less individual director, this plot could be the basis for a lurid shocker. But Campion develops the story of Tui’s disappearance slowly, rationing out plot twists at a tantalising place, focusing on exploring the inner lives of her characters as much as their secrets. This slow-burning style admittedly means that working out who the characters are – in the narrow sense of who does what job and who’s related to who – can be frustrating, and that characters sometimes seem weirdly unaffected by the dramatic events of the plot. But Top of the Lake ultimately triumphs at letting its characters develop as both universally engaging and weirdly unique – especially the women’s refuge residents, who seek the enigmatic and often abrasive advice of guru GJ (Holly Hunter) to help resolve their traumatic relationships with their pet chimpanzees, or inability to be intimate for longer than seven minutes. Campion has a habit of giving her actors little speeches – Robin talking about the traumatic event in her past, a local paedophile who becomes a suspect in Tui’s disappearance talking about his ‘love’ for an underage boy, and the woman discussing her chimpanzee – which are always movingly acted, and draw the audience deeply into their lives.
Unfortunately, the characterisation wobbles a bit in the case of Matt. In some ways he resembles Harvey Keitel’s character in The Piano – another ultra-masculine male character whom Campion, despite the strong feminism of her work, seems ambiguously fascinated with. But for the series first half in particular, I felt that despite Peter Mullan’s commanding performance, the show wasn’t entirely sure what it wanted to do with Matt’s character, which seemed to vary a random between a ruthless villain and a concerned father. Not to mention the bizarre scene in Episode 3 where Mullan and one of the women from the refuge took Ecstasy and romped naked through the forest to an awful New Age-elevator music soundtrack. It was a seriously misjudged moment which supplied fuel for those who argue that Campion’s work is pretentious and unintentionally comic, and brought out my inner Adrian Mole – “It is not a pretty sight to see old people running up hills laughing.”
Although this scene was mercifully a brief low step, overall the inconsistencies in Matt’s characterisation left the area free for Elisabeth Moss to walk off with the show. Her performance as Robin is electrifying, capturing the character’s strength and resourcefulness whilst making her slow buckling under both the new and old pressures of her life harrowing yet compulsive viewing.
In both the women’s refuge and Robin’s own life, Top of the Lake brilliantly shows how hard and in itself disturbing this process is, but it does ultimately allow the possibility of moving on. For all the cruelties its characters inflict on each other, there are also some moving demonstrations of solidarity and mutual support. Top of the Lake is a dark programme, but that makes the occasional glimpses of light among the shadows all the more compelling.