Top Of The Lake debuts tonight on Sundance at 9 p.m. Eastern.
“You’re a long way from any help,” says a concerned mother to Robin Griffin, a big-city cop who’s investigating a crime in an idyllic New Zealand backwater in Jane Campion’s mini-series Top Of The Lake. “I am the help,” she replies.
That little exchange captures both Robin’s predicament and the essence of who she is. In Campion’s feminist noir, which airs two of seven episodes tonight on the Sundance Channel, there’s a heightened awareness that Robin not only has the responsibility of taking lead on a rape/missing person case, but also has to navigate the world of men. That means getting second-guessed and mocked by local cops below her rank; intimidated and harassed by roughnecks who don’t respect her authority (or even the seriousness of crimes against women); and put under a level of scrutiny from all parties that would be unthinkable for a male detective. The closest cinematic antecedent may be Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs, and so far, Campion’s point-of-view is similarly expansive, covering Robin, a 12-year-old victim, and an entire makeshift community of women—some fighting abuse, others withstanding it, still more seeking refuge.
Returning to the TV format for the first time since 1990’s An Angel At My Table, her superb autobiography of mental patient turned novelist Janet Frame, Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee borrow the basic framework of David Lynch’s cult classic Twin Peaks (lush setting, outsider detective, small town, big secrets, even a dead body lapped ashore), but makes it unmistakably her own. There’s no shortage of eccentric local color here, but it’s not of the abstracted Lynchian variety, save maybe for a colony of exiled women led by Holly Hunter’s ash-haired guru, who has a tendency to speak in odd philosophical aphorisms. In Queenstown, New Zealand, what passes for quirky passes also for hostile, like the victim’s sinister father, who lives in a surveilled fortress and has two of his three sons trained like famished pitbulls, or a bartender whose cabin is an apocalypse bunker of stockpiled rifles.
The haunting opening image of a young girl walking into the lake recalls Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho The Bailiff—and the connection is likely not a coincidence, given Mizoguchi’s career-long interest in the plight of women. In Sansho The Bailiff, the suicide ends the crushing despair and hopelessness of being sold into slavery; in Top Of The Lake, 12-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe) only gets shoulder-deep before turning back, but it’s not hard to imagine her being overcome by despair and hopelessness of another kind. After she’s rescued from the lake and taken back to school for an examination, the nurse discovers that Tui is pregnant, prompting a statutory rape investigation.
In town to care for her cancer-stricken mother, Robin (Elizabeth Moss) succeeds to a limited degree in getting Tui to open up and talk to her about what happened. But before she can follow up on the one literal scrap of information she could extract from the girl—a piece of notebook paper with the words “NO ONE” in response to a paternity question—Tui vanishes without a trace. Her father Matt Mitcham, played with chilling ferocity by Peter Mullan, emerges as the prime suspect, a drug dealer and small-time gangster who seems capable of any crime, given his hair-trigger temper and his casual disregard for human and animal life. In murder mysteries like Top Of The Lake, Matt would be the first one eliminated in the whodunit, because his guilt seems too obvious. The same, however, isn’t true of his two brutish sons, or a third, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), who has a past with Robin.
Lately, the Mitchams’ ire has been raised mainly by the presence of strange women in “Paradise,” a slice of lakeside heaven that he claims to own. When GJ (Hunter) and a small cadre of middle-aged women set up a hippie shantytown of shipping containers on the property, Matt and sons first blame the local realtor who took Paradise out from under them, then on the women themselves, who are all seeking protection from just this sort of thuggery. In her own way, GJ seems as capable of dealing with the threat as Robin, but she goes about her business with a more Zen-like reserve. She wants to care for and protect her vulnerable charges, but Tui’s presence in her camp the night before her disappearance will certainly make that a challenge.
Wavering Kiwi accent aside, there’s no more ideal choice to play Robin than Elizabeth Moss, who knows well how to play an enterprising woman in a man’s world from her time at Sterling Cooper in Mad Men. Moss exudes more confidence here, in part because Top Of The Lake takes place in present-day and not the early ‘60s, and in part because Robin would be eaten alive if she failed to assert herself. Yet in both shows, Moss remains a fascinating enigma, driven by unseen forces and haunted by mysterious vulnerabilities. It would be easy enough for Campion to make Robin the noble feminine warrior in an arena thick with testosterone, but Moss has a talent for making herself sympathetic and strong while keeping the full scope of her feelings and motives under close guard. In other words, she’s the type of actress who can carry a TV show—be it six hours or six seasons.
Though it’s hard to make any firm statements about the plotting through two-sevenths of the story, Top Of The Lake is succeeding so far where Campion’s other attempt at genre subversion, 2003’s In The Cut, fell drastically short. Campion’s eagerness to attack a common format from a feminist angle—in that case, the sexy thriller made popular by Basic Instinct and its imitators—wasn’t matched by much care in the storytelling. There may be a whiff of conventionality to the central mystery in Top Of The Lake, but it appears much more sure-footed than In The Cut—to say nothing of the ongoing debacle that is AMC’s similar The Killing—and compelling even if Campion had nothing else in mind but an entertaining yarn. After all, in order to plumb the depths, she must first have the lake.
- I studiously avoided mentioning the identity of the body washed ashore. That would be Bob Platt, a realtor everyone in town appears to have hated, which gives the Mitchams some cover, along with the assumption that Platt drowned accidentally. The sequence where Platt drowns on a towline from the Mitchams' boat underlines Matt's reckless disregard for human life, even as later scenes make him seem genuinely incapable of doing his own daughter grievous harm.
- Paradise looks to be a solid source of comic relief in a show that could use some. From Hunter's eccentric musings to scenes like the one where a woman offers cash to any barfly willing to have sex for seven minutes, the group's offbeat antics had a funny (or at least tragicomic) bent that holds the show's darker elements in balance.
- Campion and Lee are wise to suggest trouble in Robin's past without getting into it too heavily in these early episodes. Such revelations stand to pay off more forcefully later, and they don't threaten to undermine the central mystery while it's being established.
- I haven't said a word about David Wenham, despite his second billing in the cast. Despite having deer taxidermy mounted above his desk, Wenham's Al Parker seems more open to being a true partner to Robin and a promising sign that Campion intends to bring nuance to the men, too.
- Matt's words about Tui's pregnancy are cold-blooded in the extreme, even before he calls her a “slut” like him. After he vows to take her to a clinic the next day, Robin informs him that the girl is four or five months along. His response: “I'll take her to Sydney.”
- Robin's mother delivers my favorite lines of the two episodes: “You can be very hard. And what I don't like is that you think it's strength.”
- Incredible scene in the second episode involving Bob Platt's dog. The alpha gesture of shooting the animal in Robin's presence, just to trigger fear and revulsion, is stunning—and an indicator of how Matt and his boys hold such criminal agency in the town.
- And yet: “It's good what you're doing, you know? Helping out my daughter, she's in a tough spot. Just understand one thing: No one loves her more than me. No one.”
- The need for helicopters on the hunt for Tui leads to some breathtaking overhead shots that emphasize the needle-in-a-haystack futility of a missing-persons search in this area.
- “A sheep's vagina is the closest thing to a woman's vagina,” says the roughneck who has just mocked Robin as a feminist lesbian.