Girl, Incandescent: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

The painter’s job is clear: she must paint a version of the young woman that her potential suitor in Milan will treat like the 18th century version of Tinder, except for ‘swipe right’, read ‘marry the young woman you have never met in person, and she doesn’t have a choice in the matter’. The painter’s job is less that of producing enduring art than it is to advertise a product to be sold: the young woman is a commodity and the painter is there to make her into the most alluring commodity possible. Except, in the process of observing the young woman, the painter begins to desire her. The young woman is no longer an object of art, she is the subject of the painter’s longing. But if the painter fails to complete the portrait that will lead to her losing the woman she has fallen for, someone else will be called in to paint the young woman instead. They will lose one another either way – but, in painting the young woman, she can show her for what she truly is. For the painter, loving her subject finally entails the act of relinquishing her.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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