A living mystery is far more interesting than a dead one, and it took Jane Campion to figure it out.
Created by Campion and her occasional collaborator Gerard Lee, six-part miniseries Top of the Lake is built on a familiar foundation: a small town, a lake, and enough secrets to fill a bleakly decorated, lazy-eyed-local-filled pub. This is the mystery drama in its natural habitat, and like Durham County and The Killing before it, the opening minutes of Top of the Lake sit comfortably in the shadows cast by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
Like Twin Peaks, the series opens with a girl in a lake, only this time around she’s not dead, and the only thing she’s wrapped in is a school uniform. Twelve-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe) is found wading neck-deep into the water. She’s five months pregnant.
Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), in town to visit her ailing mother (Robyn Nevin), is called in to consult on Tui’s case. Alone in a police interview room, Robin asks Tui to name the man responsible. “NO ONE,” she writes on a torn piece of paper. In the world unfolding before us, it could almost be true.
Tui is the daughter of local crime lord Matt Mitcham (played with otherworldly menace by a grizzled Peter Mullan) who is connected to almost everyone in town somehow, whether by blood, employment or carefully cultivated grudge. Mitcham is fixated on a local strip of lake-front land called Paradise — his mother is buried there — where a makeshift camp of variously arranged shipping containers has gone up overnight; a “half-way recovery camp for women in a lot of pain” led by cypher-like guru figure GJ (a near-unrecognisable Holly Hunter). Paradise becomes as much an anchor for the story as the lake, which according to legend rises and falls every five minutes with the beating heart of a warrior buried deep beneath it.
When Tui disappears and Robin steps in to head the investigation, she finds herself quickly at odds a community she’s tried hard to detach from. It’s the kind of town where nobody knows anything but everybody knows something, and every man in sight quickly becomes a suspect. But Tui’s not dead, and this isn’t a murder investigation. In a universe where the archetypically dead can speak because, well, they’re not actually dead, things get interesting.
“Top of the Lake doesn’t just echo the shows that came before it, it carves out an entirely separate niche of its own.”
There are scores to settle and secrets to keep. Every moment reveals more than the last, and by the time the credits roll on the first episode, you’re sure you’re in expert hands — every single story strand is deftly and delicately tied to three or four others; it’s the kind of plotting that happens rarely in television, and it’s immensely satisfying. This is no convoluted make-it-up-as-we-go-along Lost or Revolution universe: you know that Campion and Lee have already — in their own minds — asked and answered every question you might arrive at.
The show looks incredible — the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom) conjures Campion’s trademark imagery while seeming entirely new. Shot in and around Queenstown, this is a New Zealand we rarely see on film.
Moss’ central performance as Robin is so understated it’s almost stationary, but as the series rolls on and the character unfolds before our eyes, all of her choices start making sense, and her slightly odd vocal delivery — allegedly a Sydney accent — quickly ceases to matter.
There’s so much about Top of the Lake that could be vague, odd and awful, but the whole comes together and somehow soars. Even Hunter’s closed-off, mumbling turn as the unreadable GJ works when it shouldn’t. Some of the dialogue is truly bizarre — especially an exchange early on about masturbation and junk food — but every single line reading manages to redeem it. And the show isn’t just clever, bleak and terrifying, it’s funny: Genevieve Lemon and Robyn Malcolm are equally heartbreaking and hilarious as two of the Paradise women.
In her films, Campion can tend towards the ponderous. Here, she’s concise, careful and considered — every scene has weight and every shot carries meaning. Top of the Lake doesn’t just echo the shows that came before it, it carves out an entirely separate niche of its own.
Top of the Lake airs at 8.30pm Sunday nights on Foxtel’s UKTV, or by whatever legal means you might otherwise have to watch it.