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 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.

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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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Of serial killers, haute cuisine and empathy

So many series we’re watching aren’t exactly puppies and rainbows 24/7. There’s Top of the Lake, with its panoply of misogyny, abuse and murder. There’s Game of Thrones, whose murder, mayhem and intrigue make Shakespeare’s history plays look like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, obviously what was missing was Hannibal, a heartwarming story of a troubled boy, his psychiatrist and food, glorious food.

Coincidentally, at the same time we watched the first episode of BBC’s Messiah series 2 – and while Hannibal probably features the more baroque, aestheticised killings, it’s Messiah that I found more difficult to watch. Not in a positive way, mind you; I didn’t come away from Messiah feeling shocked and sorry for the victims, because I didn’t feel that the series was all that interested in the victims. It wasn’t outright sadistic, but it still used the sadism of its killers (I’m including the first series of Messiah in this) as a somewhat lazy shorthand: the killer these people are up again is really messed up. Which is hammered home repeatedly – but it’s almost entirely about the killer in question and the detectives out to find him.

Hunting serial killers - a grim, serious business, set in grim, serious dingy basements. (Crack a smile and we'll have to do the photo again.)

I was surprised by how much Messiah‘s murders turned me off. I usually have a fairly strong stomach when it comes to on-screen violence, and arguably Hannibal‘s cannibalism and impalings are more gruesome. However, while Hannibal doesn’t necessarily spend that much more time with the victims of violence (at least not before they’re turned into Grand Guignol dioramas by Americas 10 Most Artistic Murderers), it has something that so far I haven’t really found in Messiah: empathy. While the BBC series is happy to say, “These are horrible crimes, because they look like horrible crimes, and our heroes will stop them,” Hannibal is interested in states of mind. It’s interested in the emotional consequences of these crimes. The series’ title character, eminent psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), may be cold to the point of appearing devoid of emotion, but his counterpart Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is empathy. He’s a raw nerve, incapable of not empathising.

I used to be a fan of serial killer narratives, and I still like films like SevenZodiac and earlier additions to the Hannibal Lecter mythos such as Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs. However, I’ve come to realise that I find these films offputting if the violence they depict seems to be decorative first and foremost. Messiah‘s murders seem to be as elaborately symbolic as they are first and foremost for audiences who may be bored with the common or garden variety of murder. They’re elaborate because that’s what the genre demands. And, for me at least, they are cruel because they’re there for the effect. The murders tell us more about how the series wants to entertain its audience than about the murders or the victims.

Would you like to talk about it? Over some liver pate, perhaps?

What Hannibal seems to be striving for, on the other hand, is that old Aristotelian chestnut associated with tragedy: through Will Graham we’re asked to experience pity and fear. I did feel pity for Messiah‘s victims, but more so because I felt the series wasn’t interested in them. It wasn’t even that interested in the murderer, beyond providing a relatively glib, facile explanation of motive. In that sense, Hannibal is closer to Hitchcock’s granddaddy of all things serial-killery, Psycho, in that it believes in extending its empathy to the people committing the crimes – although in the case of Dr. Lecter, there may be no understanding why he does what he does.

Other than him liking his haute cuisine, that is. Because, seriously, where are you going to get that steaming fresh liver for that dish you’ve simply been dying to try out?

The joy of a well-prepared meal.

P.S.: I might take on Top of the Lake soon. That is, if I can figure out what I think about it – or if I can figure out an interesting way of saying why it confused me.