A Gritty Crime Lurks within Picturesque New Zealand in ‘Top of the Lake’

A 12-year-old New Zealand native walks briskly into a misty lake until she stands shoulder-deep in the murky waters. The girl wishes to commit suicide in this natural habitat because of the terrible incident now growing inside of her. Tui Mitcham is five months pregnant.

In the past few years foreign media companies have been manufacturing successful TV dramas like a Henry Ford production line. Denmark’s The Killing, Sweden’s Arne Dhal and the chilling French drama The Returned come to mind. The winning drama formula seems to include: a Nordic plot, a mysterious neighbourhood and subtitles. Although the latest in the line-up, Top of the Lake, does not force English-only readers to squint the white writing at the bottom of the screen, as it is a co-production between the UK’s BBC Two, UKTV in Australia/New Zealand and Sundance Channel in the US. This powerful drama miniseries has utilised New Zealand’s Queenstown and Glenorchy as a majestic backdrop, showing that the country is capable of homing more than just fantasy shires.

It will be of no surprise that Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion co-wrote and directed the series. Her artistic vision is apparent right from the first episode, “Paradise Sold”, where the slow paced mystery begins to unravel. Our comfort zone is rattled straight away in the opening scenes as it confronts many issues that most methods of visual art tend to ignore. However, by the second episode, “Searchers Search”, we feel more at ease with the unsettling plot.

A stellar cast sees Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss take on the central role of police detective Robin Griffin. When Robin returns home to the remote fictional village of Laketop she quickly takes on the case of the missing Tui. At first Robin seems stable and strong, closely resembling Inspector Sarah Lund from The Killing due to her obsession with her job. However, this apparent asset ends up being a weakness, causing the real relationships in her life to crumble fast, especially when she begins recounting a horrific incident that occurred in her past.

The series touches upon many controversial issues within the six episodes. Paedophilia, incest and rape are some of the main subjects raised. What is worse is that these female-male power concerns seemed ludicrously normal within the village. The eccentric nature of the community is shown to us in “Paradise Sold”, when a group of females move a bunch of shipping containers to a plot of land called ‘Paradise’. These shipping containers will serve as shelter.

These feminists are led by the prophet/guru GJ, portrayed by a waist-long silver haired Holly Hunter, who uses philosophical jargon to guide the women in their personal journies. Paradise is transformed into a sanctuary for the women, where they can prance around naked, rest and heal old wounds. Although Hunter put on a good performance as the unfazed GJ, her character was disappointingly barely in the series.

Top of the Lake by focuses on character flaws in a sort of Twin Peaks-esque community. The town is corrupt in many ways, mostly because of the Mitcham family. Tui’s own father Matt (Peter Mullan) is the drug lord who controls the town, yet instead of solely typecasting him as a villain he is given a lot of screen time so we could have some understanding as to why he is wicked. His motives becomes evident when Mullan whispers repeatedly in his thick Scottish accent, “I’m sorry” as he kneels by his mother’s grave and painfully flagellates with a belt. Clearly, Matt suffers from mother issues and this manifests again in his own parenting skills, such as they are.

Indeed, the majority of the characters in the show are unlikable, as they each have to grow a hard outer shell in order to survive in their world. We could only sympathise for the likes of Robin’s new boyfriend Johnno and troublesome teenager Jaime, because they possess the ability to care for someone beyond themselves. Also, even though we feel empathy for young Tui she, too, is a challenge. Top of the Lake is a hard-hitting show that’s not afraid to connect intimately with the audience over difficult subject matter. We are pulled into the tide because of the gritty plotline, and stirred by the ensemble of interesting characters.

The DVD and Blu-ray release of Top of the Lake offers a ‘From the Bottom of the Lake’ featurette, behind-the-scenes material as well as cast and crew interviews. The 52 minute long ‘From the Bottom of the Lake’ featurette by Clare Young gives insight into Jane Campion’s journey in making the series.

RATING 7 / 10