Top of the Lake: Sundance Review

Top of the Lake Elisabeth Moss - H 2012
Jane Campion

Top of the Lake Elisabeth Moss - H 2012

Even pristine New Zealand is infected with moral rot in Jane Campion’s superior six-hour miniseries.

Jane Campion's six-hour miniseries, which will air on the Sundance Channel beginning March 18, centers on a young police detective (Elisabeth Moss) investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

Jane Campion becomes the latest top-tier filmmaker to join the ranks of prestige miniseries creators-writers-directors with Top of the Lake, an edgy, disturbing and altogether first-rate crime drama that very much centers on women, though it does have a lot of daddy issues. World premiering as a six-hour presentation at the Sundance Film Festival, with a repetition set for the Berlin Film Festival next month, the series will make its homescreen bow in the U.S. on Sundance Channel beginning March 18. Although set in small-town New Zealand and neighboring wild, mountainous environs, it features a splendid international cast, including Yanks Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter, the latter having starred in the director’s breakthrough feature The Piano, and Scottish actor Peter Mullan as a truly great heavy.

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A classic example of a story unfolding in a gorgeous setting that hides no end of squalor, depravity and corruption under the surface, this mystery involving incest, molestation, damaged women and those old standbys -- sex and murder -- is the creation of Campion and Gerard Lee, a name from the director’s past in that he co-wrote her first feature, 1989's Sweetie, in addition to having co-directed an earlier short with her, 1983's Passionless Moments.

Sharing directorial duties with New Zealander Campion here is hot Australian commercials director Garth Davis; Campion directed episodes one, four and six, while Davis handled the other three. In the interests of visual consistency, the same cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw -- who came to prominence three years ago for shooting Animal Kingdom -- was behind the camera the whole way. Alexandre de Franceschi edited Campion’s episodes, while Scott Gray cut for Davis.

At the center of the drama is a 12-year-old girl who is largely absent from view. Tui (Jacqueline Joe), the Eurasian-looking daughter of nasty clan leader and drug dealer Matt Mitcham (Mullan), turns up pregnant. When asked by authorities to name the man responsible, she writes on a piece of paper, “No one.” She then disappears.

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Part one effectively set up the incestuous world of Laketop, a remote town in southern New Zealand whose pristine location nestled amidst wooded mountains alongside a lake inevitably brings to mind a place called Twin Peaks. The resort ambiance of the area is outweighed by the redneck character of many of the locals: working stiffs with a partiality to drugs and guns, tastes catered to by the menacing Mitcham family led by tough old rooster Matt and his wild sons.

Just having materialized along the exquisite lakeside is a curious pop-up community called Paradise, a “half-way recovery camp for women in a lot of pain” in which mostly middle-aged women live on the beach in unsightly metal shipping containers and commune with each other under the eccentric supervision of their witchlike guru GJ (Hunter). As the series progresses, this idiosyncratic commune serves as much for offbeat comic relief as it does for any serious purpose, as the women of all shapes and sizes are often seen frolicking or just hanging around in various states of undress and having discussions that touch on all manner of neuroses (one of these women is played by Sweetie star Genevieve Lemon).

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Eventually assuming center stage is Robin (Moss), a young police detective who lives in Australia but is visiting her cancer-stricken mother (Robyn Nevin). When young Tui is brought in for questioning, Robin takes part and is thus drawn back into the intrigues of an inbred community from which she had fled.

Befitting her status as a Campion heroine, Robin is a complex, searching, fallible, headstrong, sometimes misguided figure. She initially is patronized by local Detective Sgt. Al Parker (David Wenham), and there is no doubt that she’s out of her depth at first. She’s also labeled a bad daughter (her erratic mother questions all her choices) and a bad girlfriend (she’s been engaged for five years, and her commitment is tenuous at best).

A significant murder in episode one occurs on the lake, in which Robin’s father died. But along with the plot and character setups, what Campion most incisively achieves in the opening episode is to establish a setting that seethes with barely repressed anger, brutality and violence; beneath the placid surfaces lies nothing good.

Even for the reasonably attentive viewer, it would be difficult to pinpoint the differences between the episodes directed by Campion as opposed to those handled by Davis, and it might be that some of the action’s externals, plot points and dramatic scenes are more fully realized by Davis. But in part one and especially in part four, students of film direction and an artist’s touch might be able to note the finesse with which Campion summons up subtext and subtle layers of meaning and, with them, extraordinary ripples of tension and unease; her rhythms are different and unorthodox, reliant upon hesitations, the breathing patterns of the actors, the slightly off-the-beat editing. Davis drives home the big moments, while Campion burrows into the furthest and most ambiguous corners of her characters’ questionable souls.

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Dramatically, nearly every aspect of life in Laketop comes back around to Matt Mitcham. Long-haired, confrontational, violent and unpredictably temperamental, he and his reckless boys live in a heavily armed gated compound from which they run the local drug trade. The owner of significant real estate, Matt also employs quite a few locals, mostly women who are bused in every day, and has no doubt co-opted the local police. But most insidiously, he seems to have either fathered or impregnated half the local population. Not to give away specifics, but it’s fair to say that, if you had to diagram the relations -- both by bloodline and via sexual relations past and present -- the result would look as complicated as a Paris street map, with Matt as the Etoile. Mullan is spectacularly good in this monstrous role, his growling voice, riveting eyes and hair-trigger temper combining to make an unforgettable adversary.

As the search for little Tui drags on, Robin becomes reinvolved with a shaggy ex, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), a disenfranchised son of Matt who served eight years for drugs. Straight-arrow detective Al sends out mixed signals about a potential liaison with Robin, who is forced to confront very unpleasant details of her past the longer she sticks around. The presence nearby of a convicted child molester adds more fuel to the already raging fire, and by the end, enough skeletons are dragged out of the populace’s collective closets to fill a sizable catacomb.

The show gets very raunchy at times and also is startling, even shocking, in its spasms of sudden violence. Moss, sporting what one character derisively describes as a Sydney accent, is quietly and observantly superb, and Hunter, sporting straight long white hair and a caustic, cutting attitude toward her gatherings’s problems, is a hoot. The beauty of the surroundings has been gloriously captured, but it  always is infected by the moral rot and personal malevolence that the inhabitants have brought to it. To be sure, Top of the Lake presents a dire portrait of the human condition, very much in line with many of the other most popular crime-and-family-driven television series of recent years. It’s also right up there with the best of them.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: See-Saw Films, Screen Australia, Screen NSW, Fulcrum Media Finance, BBC, UKTV, The Sundance Channel
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright, Holly Hunter, Jay Ryan, Kip Chapman, Jacqueline Joe, Robyn Malcolm, Genevieve Lemon, Georgi Kay, Skye Wansey, Ane-Marie, Sarah Valentine, Robyn Nevin, Calvin Tuteao, Lucy Lawless, Darren Gilshenan, Luke Buchanan, Mirrah Foulkes, Jacek Koman, Madeleine Sami
Directors: Jane Campion, Garth Davis
Screenwriters/creators: Jane Campion, Gerard Lee
Produced: Philippa Campbell
Executive producers: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Jane Campion
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Editors: Alexandre de Franceschi, Scott Gray
Music: Mark Bradshaw
353 minutes