by Allan Fish
(Australia/UK 2013 342m) DVD1/2
p Philippa Campbell d Jane Campion, Garth Davis w Jane Campion, Gerard Lee ph Adam Arkapaw ed Scott Gray, Alexandre de Franchesci m Mark Bradshaw art Fiona Crombie
Elisabeth Moss (Robin Griffin), Thomas M.Wright (Johnno), Peter Mullan (Matt Mitcham), David Wenham (Al), Skye Wansey (Grishina), Genevieve Lemon (Bunny), Robyn Malcolm (Anita), Holly Hunter (GJ), Lucy Lawless (Caroline Platt),
Can we call Jane Campion’s return to TV a return from the wilderness? Twenty years after The Piano, still her signature work, she returned to New Zealand to make a series that may on the surface seem familiar. There are essences of works as disparate as The Sweet Hereafter, The Silence of the Lambs, Red Riding, Twin Peaks and the Millennium trilogy. There were some bleak, soul-destroying landscapes on offer in all of those, but this is New Zealand’s South Island. This is not the New Zealand of Middle Earth that has so well served their tourist board since Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies. It’s beautiful, but it’s horrific, it’s savage, primeval. And the locals have moulded to their landscape.
The town of Lake Top is a close-knit community and the home of detective Robin Griffin’s youth, and where she returns to visit her mother, dying of cancer, while trying to summon up the courage to make a decision on her five year engagement to a man back in Australia. While there she is called up to act as a consultant in the case of Tui, a 12 year old girl who is found by her teachers to be pregnant. Robin tries to find out who the father is and, against her wishes, Tui is returned to her father’s home from where she disappears. Her father believes she’s gone into the mountains to take care of herself, while others think fouler play is afoot.
That bone-marrow running through the spinal cord of the series, with its female protagonist, is enticing enough, if familiar after Jane Tennyson, Clarice Starling and Sarah Lund in recent times. But around the periphery is GJ, a so-called healer and spiritualist, who arrives at the plain known as ‘Paradise’ to give advice to lovelorn and other women seeking guidance. Oh yes, and there’s a narcotics ring which employs half the women in the area and which is technically advanced enough to make Walter White jealous.
In the years since The Piano, Campion’s steps have faltered more often than they have been sure. The Portrait of a Lady was pallid, Holy Smoke barely held together by Kate Winslet’s fearlessness. In the Cut could have been something special, but Meg Ryan’s stunning performance was undermined by the idiotic choices her supposedly intelligent character took; the search for the killer less interesting than her voyage of sexual discovery. As for Bright Star, it was very pretty and beautifully acted, but would anyone ever want to return to it? Top of the Lake itself isn’t perfect, at times painfully so. One cannot escape the feeling that the episodic format doesn’t suit it as well as, say, two three hour films with an intermission (it plays better on DVD and Blu Ray in one long sitting). There are still infuriating loose ends, characters who are odd simply for the sake of being odd. The whole healing subplot around GJ’s container park and the role written for Hunter by Campion – in which Hunter has a grey wig equal parts Native American mystic and David Lynch’s Log Lady– seems a mistake. Its ending may seem familiar and its culprit rather obvious, but it was never about the mystery surrounding Tui, but rather about the characters finding themselves. Each is either hiding something or hiding from something, and it’s in the process of hiding one often makes discoveries. It’s stunningly shot, as one might expect, but it’s the acting that dominates. Mullan may be playing this sort of role too often for our liking, but he’s still riveting, while Moss (replacing Anna Paquin, who declined due to pregnancy, now there’s a reteaming waiting to happen) is a revelation, not merely in her flawless accent, but in the DNA of the role and the fear of facing up to her own haunting past. Look beyond the flaws and eccentricities, for this is a lake which will rewarding future visits, with fresh perspectives floating to the surface.