Criterion Corner: The Piano (#1110)

I first saw The Piano at the cinema in 1993, when it originally came out. The film felt intense and erotic and physical. It felt adult – though, looking back, I’m surprised by how many films I’d seen as a child and teenager that I’d consider adult. Not because of nudity or sex, although they definitely featured those – I’m thinking of the likes of Milos Forman’s Amadeus or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor -, but because of the characters and themes, and because they were more than happy to leave things unsaid. They were ambiguous. Certainly, I also spent the ’90s watching things like Aliens and Die Hard and Jurassic Park, and I enjoyed those (though I never loved Jurassic Park, which always felt like a more family-friendly Jaws to me, and Jaws should never be family-friendly) – but where these now feel familiar, like cinematic comfort food, The Piano still has that strange intimacy that is both thrilling and discomforting.

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Sick rom-com, bro!

What makes for a good romantic comedy? To be honest, I may be the wrong person to ask, since I have it on good authority that my narrative preferences lean towards the melancholy, if not the downright depressing. Which probably makes me the last person who should argue the qualities of good romantic comedies. Most entries in the genre strike me as manipulative, dishonest and often toxic in their notions of romance and courtship, not to mention their views on masculinity and femininity. And, last but not least, I have pretty dim views of the genre’s infatuation with phony happily-ever-after tropes.

The Big Sick

So it may not be a huge surprise that what may be my favourite romantic comedy of the last ten years (okay, nine years – I liked (500) Days of Summer quite a bit) revolves around one of the main characters almost dying and being in a medically-induced coma for much of its running time. Nothing more romantic than that, eh?

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Drowned sins

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.

Top of the Lake

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 clich├ęs, 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.