Jane Campion’s mini-series Top of the Lake is an odd one. Usually I’m quite comfortable pronouncing judgment on a series and how well it holds together – I wouldn’t go as binary as the proverbial thumbs up or down, but I’m rarely as ambivalent as I’ve been about Campion’s latest.
One thing I’m comfortable to say: Top of the Lake is a mess. It’s confused. It doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be. And it would be generous to describe its pacing as fits and starts. The series uses its story of a missing, pregnant 12-year old to outline a society that’s closed off, incestuous (both metaphorically and quite possibly literally), and a misogynist throwback, in spite of being set in what appears to be contemporary New Zealand. It never quite decides on the thrust of its criticism, though, as it gets tangled up in its own ambivalence: so many of its men appear to be (or, just as bad, strive to be) sexist alpha males with little regard for the women in their community, yet the series’ prominent locus of female kinship and healing rarely becomes more than a caricature of neurotic women in search of a New Age guru to follow. Which they find, sort of, in Holly Hunter’s G.J. – more on whom later.
On the whole, too many of the characters in Top of the Lake remain one-dimensional, gendered in simplistic ways: the clueless macho, the weak middle-aged woman, the brow-beaten son. The characters that escape such categories aren’t so much better written as they are elevated into something more complex and interesting by the acting. Elizabeth Moss’s young detective, Peter Mullan’s grizzled patriarch – yes, there’s a bit more meat on the bone in the way they’re written as well, but primarily the actors bring to life characters oscillating between stereotype and archetype. There’s something reminiscent of Sam Shepard and his character constellations in Top of the Lake: at its worst, it’s a jumble of clichés, at its best it achieves an almost mythical sublimation coupled with strong, compelling performances. Top of the Lake is something rarely found on TV: it’s not entirely naturalistic, and it takes a while to recognise, let alone accept, the series’ more stylised approach – an approach that is perhaps reminiscent more of the stage than the small screen.
Having said that, some of the series’ strongest moments would be impossible on stage, relying as they do on the images and the breathtaking landscape of New Zealand. The cinematography is striking and deserving of a big TV, if not even a movie screen. As is some of the cast: even if both Mullan and Hunter especially suffer from writing that misses as often as it hits, they almost burst the confines of TV. Hunter especially is a strange creature: her character’s lines rarely have more depth than fortune cookie wisdoms, yet she has a presence that is memorable when what she says rarely is.
Altogether, Top of the Lake is compelling. It’s fascinating. In its deeply flawed, messy glory it’s considerably more interesting and worthwhile than several other series recently shown by the BBC. It is a series that almost requires being discussed and it’s some of the more ambitious TV I’ve seen in quite a while.