A determining factor, some may argue, at the heart of Campion’s oeuvre is the inclusion of a strong, emotive (and convincing) female protagonist seen in the likes of Sweetie (1981), An Angel At My Table (1990), The Piano (1993) and In the Cut (2003) to name but a few; these women are usually in search of themselves and while their strength and femininity are rarely questioned they tend to be deeply flawed characters. In Campion’s crime mini-series Top of the Lake – which sees her reunited with collaborator and long-time friend Gerard Lee – leading protagonist Robin Griffith (Elisabeth Moss) picks up the baton left by these memorable characters.
When 12-year-old Tui Mitchum (Jacqueline Joe) is rescued from Lake Top’s freezing stretch of water, her pregnancy is discovered and Detective Robin Griffith – having returned ‘home’ from Sydney – insists on taking the case. Over the course of the six-part drama, she contends with a lot more than just a statutory rape case; namely a dying mother, a long-term engagement she may or may not want, the boy she left behind, and her own demons that she has never fully faced. Throw into the mix, the all-female commune (attempting to take refuge from the debilitating aspects of their respective lives) that has set up home in a field they call Paradise, led by the enigmatic GJ (Holly Hunter). Feeling such a strong personal affiliation with young rape victim Tui, Robin is determined to assist the child; a prospect made all the more difficult when Tui disappears from a dysfunctional community full of secrets, lies, and deception, seemingly led by her father, Matt (Peter Mullan).
Boasting a cast which includes David Wenham (Oranges and Sunshine), Genevieve Lemon (The Piano) and Thomas M. Wright (soon to be seen in the US version of The Bridge) as well as the stellar prowess of Hunter and Mullan, all of whom are superb, this is really Moss’s show. Proving that she can do so much more than Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson, she is, quite simply, brilliant as the psychologically paradoxical Robin. Filmed largely on New Zealand’s South Island (a character in itself), Top of the Lake, is a TV story which unfolds like a novel much like HBO’s Deadwood. Yet amid its style there is a stark hyper-realism and mimetic quality which emerges at its own pace – some may say a snail’s – but this deliberate pacing, silence and haunting cinematography has a purpose and builds upon the thrilling tension.
It is, oddly, reminiscent of Smillas’s Feeling for Snow (1997), yet ups the emotionally raw ante (and provides a much more relatable leading lady). Campion and Lee wrote a script in 2010, a lot of which is improvised around here, and manages to keep audience interest through many-a subject matter including murder, incest, police corruption and gender politics. Misandry and misogyny go hand-in-hand; the invisibility of the older woman is offset by the impotency of the ageing male, here in Lake Top everybody is damaged, vulnerable and/or breaking the law in some capacity. By the last episode, the conclusion of which is grimly satisfying, one realises that there is no actual resolution; there are still unanswered questions which is frustratingly refreshing and not usually expected in crime television of today’s standard, at least not of the English speaking variety anyway. Campion nails it yet again.