Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” left me staggered. I finally finished watching it on Netflix, and as the end credits rolled, I sat, quiet and still.
The series has the scope, breadth, and detail of a great novel, and it demonstrated to me — with clarity — how much stronger and more vital it is than something like, say. “Gone Girl,” the Gillian Flynn novel I just finished. “Gone Girl” is deliriously fun and twisty, but it’s all posturing. “Top of the Lake” feels emotionally vivid, truly haunting, and, more than anything else, alive with emotion.
Jane Campion has never made a dull film, although for me, they have varied in quality (loved “The Piano,” didn’t love “Portrait of a Lady” or the admittedly fascinating “In the Cut”). Her most recent effort, “Bright Star,” was wildly underrated, and except for producing the oddity that was “Sleeping Beauty,” she fell off my radar during the past few years.
In fact, I’m not sure I knew about the breathtaking “Top of the Lake” until I read Amy Taubin’s passionate post-Sundance (it premiered there) piece in Film Comment.
“‘Twin Peaks’ crossed with ‘The Killing’ —and that isn’t the half of it: the seven-episode television series ‘Top of the Lake’ is the toughest, wildest picture Jane Campion has ever made. Campion’s previous foray into television, ‘An Angel at My Table,’ a four-part biopic about the writer Janet Frame, was focused on a single character, and though dramatically and psychologically compelling, it lacked the expressive visual style of Campion’s features. With the emotional intensity of its performances and the urgency of its drama scaled to match its vast, primal setting and six-hour length, ‘Top of the Lake’ is something else again: series television as epic poem, the Trojan Wars recast as the gender war. Three women, each on her own journey, connect and bring the patriarchy to its knees. But that’s too bald a description.”
It is a detective series, to be sure, but its themes are far beyond the typical whodunit series. For one thing, there are the performances. “Mad Men”’s Elisabeth Moss is so good, so strong, so vulnerable and tough, that I barely connected her with Peggy Olsen. It is a performance on the scale of Jodie Foster in “Silence of the Lambs,” and possibly more nuanced.
Holly Hunter is reliably offbeat, David Wenham nicely restrained, and Peter Mullan … Well, Peter Mullan is extraordinary. His Matt is equal parts Noah Cross and Charles Manson, a shaggy, hyper-sexualized outlaw as memorable as any character in the last decade.
Taubin called Mullan’s performance “malign and absurdly attractive,” and she has a point. He is disturbing, mysterious, at times semi-likable, but always mesmerizing. It is one of the finest performances in recent memory, period, and perhaps the most all-encompassing role of the actor’s career.
Taubin also points to the story’s strangeness, and part of that is New Zealand setting. From the first few moments, in which 12-year-old Tui walks into icy water, to the dusty property known as Paradise, it feels as if we are in alien territory. Moss’s Robin Griffin grew up there, but never seems quite at home, and like her, we are quasi-outsiders. The geography only adds to the mystery.
At heart, “Top of the Lake” is a detective story, and its conclusion feels appropriate. It is difficult to end such an epic story in tidy fashion, but Campion (who co-directs with Garth Davis) pulls it off. My only disappointment, in fact, is that I want to see what Robin Griffin is up to next.
The series aired on the Sundance Channel and is streaming on Netflix. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Photo from Film Comment article