Early thoughts on Jane Campion’s long-awaited New Zealand-set mini-series from the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.
Top of the Lake is the first project Jane Campion has shot in New Zealand since The Piano. And she has shot it in a way that’s unlikely to make the Minster of Tourism happy. A miniseries collaboration between Campion and Aussie Garth Davis, it takes its cue from the slew of television series about ‘normal’ towns with dark secrets (the original template Twin Peaks; more recently Red Riding Trilogy, The Killing). The series is, to be frank, remarkably clichéd and well signposted throughout. Those expecting something fresh and exciting won’t find it here. But it’s also brilliantly executed. The end result is an intelligent and compelling account of small town New Zealand that for all the tourist shots of beautiful landscape, hides something sinister. If New Zealand broadcasters had guts and a nose for what’s current, they’d screen it in a primetime slot as soon as possible. But then again, we’re talking New Zealand television…
Detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) is back home to help her cancer-stricken mother. She finds herself seconded to the local constabulary after a 12-year-old named Tui is found to be five months pregnant. Tui refuses to say who the father is, and soon thereafter disappears. Griffin finds herself drawn into the case, reliving past trauma (the reason for her leaving the town), and dealing with the town’s strange make-up of people, including American hippies, the town patriarch (also Tui’s father), and dodgy real estate agents. Predictably, the narrative moves at a rollicking pace and with twists and turns a-plenty.
As you’d expect of Campion, the series is spectacularly shot, and certainly benefits from being seen on the big screen. Seemingly inspired by Terrence Malick, Campion’s landscape dwarfs the humans to the point that people are rendered puny and pathetic. It essentially plays a character, adding history and myths, darkness, and an implacable indifference to the narrative. But the script also convincingly creates an uneasy small-town atmosphere, full of impotence, accepted machismo and misogyny by both men and women, guilt, misplaced frustrations, xenophobia and intolerance, and people looking for the easy way out. Hers is such a dark view of New Zealand behaviour that it’s hard not to be impressed.
What differs in Campion’s approach is her broad-brush drawing of protagonists and the well-drawn and intriguing female characters. Top of the Lake is as much a police procedural as a psychological account of trauma, one’s fraught relationship to home (especially after a prolonged absence), and trying to recontextualise the past years later. Male violence against women is prominent, and Campion and Davis explore the consequences of such violence on the victims, whether it’s Griffin’s mother’s casual acceptance of her partner’s violence, to the continuing effects of horrific sexual violence. While the narrative’s themes are undoubtedly heavy, it’s also laced with humour and moments of contemplation. Campion and Davis prove adept at shifting tone seamlessly, which assists in the proceedings—a notable highlight being Holly Hunter’s shamanistic pronunciations as leader of a New Age cult (and the associated misfits who surround her). Of course, Campion isn’t unfamiliar with the long-form narrative (An Angel at My Table is one of the best films—despite originally being conceived as a mini-series—ever made by a New Zealander), and as such the wider scope and novelistic detail plays to her strengths. It’s marvelous stuff, and one can only hope it is shown in full glory back home. And judging by the audience’s rapturous reaction after six untaxing hours, it shouldn’t be a hard sell.