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Top of the Lake Top of the Lake
I was in the early swoony stages of pregnancy when my husband took the road to Paradise. I walked slowly every day around the lake in Queenstown, New Zealand, through a fog of morning-sickness-quease, uneasy at the water’s ever-changing moods.

The clouds that formed over Wakatipu had different shapes to those here, pointed and pink, fairy-floss spears. With adventure-time over, backpackers heading home, the place felt lost, isolated, still. As I rounded corners towards Glenorchy I felt photoshopped into a scene of snow-capped mountains and corn-coloured paddocks too fakely glorious to be real. Jane Campion’s TV series Top of the Lake (written and directed with Gerard Lee) picks a point on the map (Paradise) and takes me back there (warning: spoiler alert).

Lakes have often been used in TV shows and film as the dumping ground for small-town guilt and secrets: Laura Palmer, ‘wrapped in plastic,’ adrift in Twin Peaks; Jimmy McGovern’s murderous plotting around the deaths of three girls in The Lakes; another teen, floating while men fish, in the river above Jindabyne (where a dam flooded the town formerly housing 300 people). In Top of the Lake, a 12-year-old girl, Tui (Jacqueline Joe), enters the freezing water dressed in her school uniform. She is carrying a child—she doesn’t “even know how it got in there.”

As shipping containers land in Paradise and characters start to emerge, there’s a strange discordance in the plotting and mood. The squabbling, unearthly women’s camp (housed in the containers), led by overseer and no-bullshit prophet GJ (Holly Hunter), lands to face off against local ‘boganville’ family Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) and his sons Mark and Luke, the bikie-druggie-misogynists who think they own the land. And yes, as the names suggest, there’s biblical intent everywhere. Many characters, writhing naked in the sinewy landscape, have their Adam and Eve moments. There’s a mother with a seemingly immaculate conception (when asked who the father is, Tui says, “no one”). And it’s up to the audience to work out: who’s the snake?

Added to the mix are the central storylines of The Return and a police procedural whodunnit. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) heads back from Sydney to visit her dying mother, and lands a case that revisits her own past: a rape involving locals who may still live there; a first boyfriend and a lingering kiss; a boss who seems enamoured; and a Darth Vader moment (welcome to the dark side, Robin). Much has been made of the ABC pulling out of its involvement in the series when Moss was cast in the lead role. It’s true that she is out of place. Her accent doesn’t work, she brings none of the baggage of a New Zealander or Sydneysider (especially when strong Oz actors like Robyn Nevin work effortlessly around her) and the idea that she is a detective is at times laughable: confronted with any crime situation, she tends to cry out for help. But as an actress Moss is utterly compelling. Her face is a halo of light, and her skin so transparent she seems to pour emotion into your cupped hands (both Campion and I can be fans of the overwrought). I’ve devoured her in West Wing and Mad Men, and in the final episodes of Top of the Lake I move beyond the accent. David Wenham seems uncomfortable, at times playing for laughs, and contending with the worst haircut in living memory. He’s done menacing so well (The Boys) that he needs to shift gear and opts for smooth monotone, but the plot points are heavily signposted and it’s clear he’s the baddie from the moment Robin enters his office and sees the deer head on the wall (really, they still have those at police headquarters?).

Much of the series feels like Campion’s return, too. To a country she is ambivalent about, to a series of clichés to explore, to cafes that actually have espresso machines, to a place where men prefer the sexual company of sheep (yep, we go there) and think all feminists are lesbians, to possible new horizons where women can hope to be naked and free (but opt to close their eyes and fall for the men anyway). Campion’s strengths in filmmaking, though, have always been for the quirky, the gothic, the mingling of wild passion with nature, and her intense eye for detail. Matt might be mad as a cut snake, lashing himself with a belt over the grave of his mother, but he still uses her fine china for tea: in the kitchen background his son carefully turns the delicate teapot three times while brewing a pot for his father.

A sense of grief pervades the series: for children sexually violated while they drowse; for cancer ‘that’s not going to go away’; for men who abuse their power and get away with it; for women who keep making the same mistakes even while seeking enlightenment. While Top of the Lake doesn’t manage to draw the threads together, or handle the quirk with David Lynchian flair, it’s challenging TV that takes us on the road to Paradise and gives the place a damn good thrashing.


Top of the Lake, writer-directors Jane Campion, Gerard Lee, co-producers BBC2, UKTV, Sundance Channel; shown on Foxtel’s UK channel in Australia.

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 31

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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