Over the years many films and television series have been compared to novels and the comparison is extremely applicable to work by Jane Campion. The Piano is the great Romantic novel that never was, with mute Holly Hunter’s titular instrument giving her a voice in the verdant New Zealand landscape while the film dealt with oppression and repression and sexuality in a way the literature of the time never could do. Although the six episode miniseries Top Of The Lake are set in contemporary New Zealand, the weighty subject matter, measured pacing and emotional intensity set against literally awesome natural surroundings all evoke a similar atmosphere. This heady concoction resulted in one of the standouts in television this year, if not this decade so far.
In an age where ‘quality’ television is at an all-time high, such a deliberately paced show has the potential to come across dry and boring. Whereas the tension in a show like Breaking Bad builds to some form of dramatic crescendo virtually every scene, the tension in TOTL simmers perpetually with an uneasy dread akin to Twin Peaks, the connection compounded by the plot regarding a bizarre community and incredible scenery.
When a twelve year old school girl tries to drown herself in the titular body of water, the police find her pregnant and this leads troubled detective Robin Griffin (the excellent Elisabeth Moss of The West Wing and Mad Men fame) into suspicious families, traumatic memories and sexual exploitation. And all this is before the girl goes missing. So far, so substandard crime drama. But to reveal any more of the plot beyond its bare bones would be to detract from the slow-burn surprises the show revels in delivering.
So the show isn’t exactly breaking new ground with its mystery (but hey, vacuum-formed originality has really only been something creative types are expected to strive for in the past century or so anyway, it has not always been the pinnacle), but that’s not where its magic lies. Jane Campion and Gerard Lee could have just relayed a basic mystery with ease, but instead it deals with issues of masculinity and women to an extent and in a manner atypical of similar shows (and typical of Campion) and this is to its credit. Sterling naturalistic performances and a focus on the raw elemental forces surrounding these tiny people and their tragedies are what linger in the mind the longest after viewing, as well as the most leftfield subplot, Paradise.
That name is given to a women’s commune that settles by the lake in large shipping containers. Here they are hoping the wide natural splendour and “sage” wisdom given by an uninterested leader (Hunter again, equally excellent) will aid in their recovery from emotional crises, and this provides a lot of levity to these dark proceedings through very dry comedy. Even when they become entangled with the natives of Laketop and the mystery there is still time for comic remarks about one widow mourning the death of her life partner, a monkey.
Very much a female-driven piece, it’s rare that any characters, male, female or otherwise, are developed so vividly yet subtly in such a short period of time without feeling contrived. By no means a perfect miniseries, it is damn close and guaranteed to invoke a strong reaction one way or the other. A highlight of the year’s art output, not just television, Top Of The Lake cannot be commended and recommended enough.