“Top of the Lake” is Sundance Channel’s bid to get into scripted dramas. Didn’t know that Sundance even has a channel? Neither did I until I heard about “Top of the Lake.” Created and directed by Jane Campion (“The Piano” and “Bright Star”) and Gerard Lee (“All Men Are Liars”), it examines gender and authority in New Zealand over seven one hour episodes that function better as one whole movie than a miniseries.
Solely based on the plot description “Top of the Lake” seems like New Zealand’s version of “The Killing,” only much better. It opens with a young girl named Tui walking into the frigid water of Top Lake, before being spotted and pulled out. She is quickly revealed to be pregnant, and that’s when Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin steps in, a former local cop who is back in town to see her ailing mother. Once the pregnancy is revealed the seedy underbelly of Top Lake is exposed, and grievances from decades before are brought back to light.
Trouble in the Farthest Place on Earth
The mystery around Tui’s pregnancy, and later her disappearance, is certainly an engaging mystery,raising a lot of issues of how men abuse their power in society and how that abuse trickles down through family ties. At seven hours though, the central mystery is stretched too long and loses a lot of momentum. There’s a lot of incident, and a lot of plot to fill the seven hours, but not all of it is crucial. Episode five, when the story should begin to come together and the suspense should ramp up, is completely forgettable, and could have been nearly excised entirely.
There’s also the issue of a women’s commune that is introduced in the first hour and just stays in the background for most of the series. It’s a haven for abused women run by an enigmatic white haired spiritual named GJ (Holly Hunter), and provides shelter for Tui and Robin as the story gets darker and darker. The commune seems like much more than just a plot device though, and given that Jane Campion created the idea, I can only assume that the commune was designed to make a statement. I just have no idea what that statement is. Some of the women in the commune have small plots but they don’t go anywhere, and CJ even leaves, saying she needs to get away from “all these crazy bitches.” After really thinking it over for a few days, I still can’t find a greater meaning in the commune, which is a shame because it’s a story ripe for investigation.
“Top of the Lake” is definitely the type of series where you watch for the initial mystery, and continue watching for the characters, who are all wonderfully written and acted. Elisabeth Moss, while not a revelation as Robin, certainly puts in a good performance, and captures the gritty and defiant spirit of her character. David Wenham as Al, the police captain, and Peter Mullan as Matt Mitchum, the father of Tui, work wonders as patriarchal overlords, each dealing with their own darkness in subtle ways. Both are playing against type here, Peter Mullan especially. He’s normally so cuddly and warm, it was a shock for me to hear him swear and watch him get stoned and nearly intentionally run a woman over with his car.
“Top of the Lake” has been over for a few weeks now but it has been rerun constantly on the Sundance Channel, which you will have if you have any sort of movie package. Though the mystery does lose some focus everything still comes together, and you won’t be left with any infuriating questions, unlike “The Killing.” The acting is top notch here, and they will stick with you long after you find out what happened to Tui.