When Top of the Lake first aired four years ago, I wasn’t the biggest fan as I found Jane Campion‘s drama to be slightly too obtuse to enjoy and wasn’t compelled enough by the central mystery to continue. However, when I got a chance to go a screening of the first two instalments of the shows second series I jumped at the chance primarily so I could be in the presence of the drama’s lead actress; the wonderful Elisabeth Moss. Thankfully, I found the start of this series, subtitled China Girl, to be compelling from the outset thanks to its Sydney setting and a much simpler plot.
The first episode of the series grabbed me almost instantly thanks to a silent opening scene that takes us through the corridors of Sydney-based brothel Silk 41. We watch as the proprietor of the establishment as well as one of its inhabitants carry a suitcase out of the door and take it to Bondi Beach. They try to push into the ocean however, in a rather realistic manner, the first attempt to dispose of the case doesn’t go swimmingly. Throughout the episode Campion presents the suitcase as a ticking time bomb especially when it begins to open slightly. Although it’s not hard to work out what, or more specifically who, is inside as the disposal of the case coincides with the disappearance of one of the brothel’s prostitutes; Cinnamon.
Following the dialogue-free opening sequence, we’re back with Detective Robin Griffin (Moss) who has just arrived back in Sydney following an extended stay in New Zealand. It’s clear her experiences from the first series are affecting her. Although he’s trepidatious about her return to work, Robin’s boss Adrian (Clayton Jacobson) relents to her request on the understanding that she receives counselling. One person who’s excited by Robin’s return to Sydney is fellow officer Miranda Hilmarson (Gwendoline Christie) who latches onto her as soon as she enters the station. As the episode continues Robin moves into an apartment near Miranda’s before being forced to take her on as a partner when the suitcase washes up on the sand.
Another early scene sees Robin open a letter that her biological daughter wrote to her several years earlier whilst she was in New Zealand. We’re soon introduced to that daughter, Mary (played by Campion’s daughter Alice Englert) who is dating the much older Alexander (David Dencik); a resident of Silk 41 who goes by the nickname of ‘Puss’. A former professor, ‘Puss’ now spends his days tutoring the brothels’ Asian prostitutes in English and spending his evenings with his school-age girlfriend. Mary’s adoptive parents are a Bohemian pair and whilst she’s close to her passive father Pyke (Ewen Leslie), she frequently clashes with her mother Julia (Nicole Kidman) who has recently left her husband for another woman. Events come to a head for the family when Alexander meets Pyke and Julia at a very awkward dinner party which ends with him asking for permission to marry Mary.
Upon watching this episode for a second time in order to write my review I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I initially did and I think that’s partially because I watched the first two instalments together. Certainly, episode two is where things start to click together with the investigation. The second episode also sees the start of some interesting flashbacks that explore why Robin decided to leave her prospective husband on the day of their wedding. That being said, there are still some great moments in episode one most notably the introduction of the brilliant Miranda and the performance from Gwendoline Christie. At the Q&A that followed the screening, Campion credited Christie with being the catalyst behind her motivation to write a second series. Miranda is a great foil for Robin and also brings out a softer side to her. Christie embodies Miranda with a gawky charm that’s hard not to love and the character’s devotion to Robin adds a sweetness to Top of the Lake that’s lacking elsewhere.
Moss is as brilliant as ever. Her performance oozes anguish as we feel Robin’s pain about the events from the first series and how haunted she is over mistakes she’s made in the past. Moss is such an intense screen presence and she perfectly captures Robin’s frankness in several pivotal scenes. That said, this series is a lot funnier than Top of the Lake’s first run thanks both to Miranda’s one-liners and the scenes involving a group of computer nerds congregating in an internet cafe.
Where I felt this first episode fell down was in its pacing. It took far too long for the suitcase to wash up on the beach and for the police investigation to get underway. At times, Campion and Gerard Lee‘s screenplay was far too meandering and spent too long with characters that I cared little for. This was especially true of the sleazy ‘Puss’; who I found to be an underwhelming character and was neither charming nor horrific enough to really make an impact. Thankfully the scenes with ‘Puss’ were saved by the fantastic Alice Englert whose performance as the precocious Mary only gets better as the series progresses. Her scenes with Nicole Kidman were especially fun as the pair bounced off each other perfectly. Kidman herself is brilliant here playing an Earth mother type who has modelled herself on the teaching of Germaine Greer and whose free-spirited nature has had an adverse impact on Mary.
Overall, despite some issues with the pacing and characterisation of episode one, Top of the Lake is certainly heading in the right direction and if you’re unsure after watching this opener I would implore you to stick with it. The brilliant direction and fantastic performances continue to dazzle whilst the pacing issues resolve themselves as Robin and Miranda delve more into the world of Sydney’s sex trade industry. Ultimately, I was very impressed with what I saw over the first two episodes of Top of the Lake and am glad to have a grown-up drama to sink my teeth into over the usually quiet summer months.
Top of the Lake: China Girl continues on Thursday nights at 9pm on BBC Two whilst the whole series is available now to watch on iPlayer.