There were moments during ‘Top of the Lake’ when perhaps, just perhaps, we might have reached somewhere faster. It was plodding; a bus tour through the silent beauty of New Zealand (and my goodness it looked incredible), an opportunity to escape up gravel paths and into the woodland. We went out on the water (and under it) and into the fields. We went everywhere, just slowly.
But the landscape was so integral to this moody, mysterious new drama from Jane Campion and Gerard Lee that such lingering didn’t take anything away from the experience. In fairness, the question of whether it added anything is also valid, but for the purposes of praising the show in the way I feel it deserved, let’s say the pace was a pleasant companion.
It seems that ‘Top of the Lake’ has been split into every which way possible – including a six hour long movie at Sundance – but the BBC are getting six, hour-long dramas from it. It begins with an episode that, more than anything else, questions the role of men. Who are they, and what do they do?
In this instance, they’re almost everything; fathers, sons, boss’, brothers, bullies, murderers. We’re led to believe that at least one is a rapist – he who is responsible for impregnating Tui Mitcham, the 12 year old girl whose disappearance brings this first part to a close.
After being pulled from the icy waters around Top Lake, Tui meets Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), who tries to coax a name from her. Robin is kindness amongst the kind of patriarchal flippancy that makes you wonder if the men care at all. Indeed, those who care and those who don’t may come to mean a great deal over the course of the series.
Running alongside the police investigation is the story of a group of women who set up camp on Paradise, a plot of land that Tui’s father, Matt (Peter Mullan), believes is rightfully his. These women have been exiled, and are almost cryptic in the way they talk about the men who drove them to a life on the road. They are led by GJ (Holly Hunter), a prophetic, ghost-like woman who appears to float across the landscape, hardly saying a word until a peculiar meeting with her camp-mates (and Tui). When Matt gets hold of the estate agent he believes flunked the deal, he takes revenge, dragging him behind a motor-boat until he drowns.
Matt lives in a heavily guarded house; surveillance cameras everywhere, shelves of guns on every wall. When he hears about his daughter’s pregnancy he calls for an abortion. But Tui is five months pregnant. He’s aggressive towards her, even when she has a gun pointed to his head, but odd glimpses of his paternal side shine through. He’s almost everything the men in ‘Top of the Lake’ represent – oppressive, impulsive individuals – and Mullan’s performance keeps up magnificently.
Moss’ performance as Robin speaks volumes of her talent at deconstructing the psyche of strong, but compromised women. Her mother is ill, her father passed away. The way she sulks has such an adolescent under-tone that her strength on the job is even more impressive. She’s the star, but Jacqueline Joe as Tui must be given credit in her almost entirely silent role.
From this first instalment, it seems that Campion and Lee have created a world in which both the crime and drama may run free from each other – a welcome change from the all encompassing police drama’s that have become so prevalent on television these days. It’s ambitious but it’s fresh, and that’s no mean feat. I’m not merely keen to see what comes next. I’m intrigued.
Top of the Lake continues Saturday at 9.10pm on BBC2
Contributed by Will Downes