Jane Campion’s ‘Top of the Lake’: More Than Just a Police Procedural

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Top of the Lake is a TV miniseries about a sexually abused 12-year-old girl who subsequently disappears, and the hard-case police detective who is trying to find her. Based on that logline, you’d think you’ve seen it before, and in the most basic, shallow, cosmetic sense, you’d be right: there are tough scenes in interrogation rooms, police strategy meetings with PowerPoint presentations, and plenty of shots of our protagonist gazing at walls covered with pictures of the missing girl. But there is much more to the series than that, which isn’t surprising considering its pedigree — this is the work of Jane Campion, the Oscar-winning writer/director of The Piano and An Angel at My Table. The idea that she would be interested in doing a mere police procedural is silly, and while she doesn’t cheat on the mystery elements, they’re also used as window dressing for themes that are far more compelling.

Campion co-wrote the series (with her Sweetie collaborator Gerald Lee), and split directorial duties with Garth Davis. The story is set in a remote area of her native New Zealand, where police detective Robin Griffin (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, sporting an ace Kiwi accent) is home caring for her cancer-ridden mother. No sooner has she arrived than 12-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe) is reported by her school nurse to be four months pregnant; Robin is brought on to handle the case, and makes an initial connection with the girl, but Tui disappears soon after. Is she dead? And who is responsible — both for that crime and the one that presumably sent her away?

Again, pretty straightforward, at first glance. But Campion and Lee fill their script with secondary storylines that intersect in unexpected ways. There is, for example, the colony of post-menopausal women who have taken over a picturesque plot of land dubbed “Paradise.” They’re there to sit at the feet of G.J., an enigmatic spiritual leader played by Holly Hunter (collaborating with Campion for the first time since her Best Actress win for The Piano). Hunter, sporting a stringy gray wig and a seen-it-all demeanor, is a strange and fascinating piece of work, smoking and barking and speaking in riddles.

And then there is Matt Mitcham, the father of the missing girl, played by the great Peter Mullan (Red Riding, Session 9) in a performance that’s terrifying even for him (which is really saying something). He’s locked in a land dispute with the women of Paradise, and when he bares his teeth and goes at them, it’s thoroughly unnerving.

But Top of the Lake is most noteworthy as a portrait of a woman, and a portrait of a town. The no-nonsense female police detective certainly isn’t a new characterization, but Campion and Lee’s writing and Moss’s playing are sharp and prickly; they’re as interested in her flaws as they are in her power. “You can be very hard,” her mother tells her, “and what I don’t like is, you think it’s strength.” Unsurprisingly, Campion doesn’t scrimp on the tricky balance of being a powerful woman among regressive men (watch carefully how Robin responds to a townie’s sneering question about if she’s a feminist), particularly those one holds a grudge against.

The details of that grudge begin to reveal themselves over the course of at least the initial hours (we were sent the first three episodes for review), and it’s one of the elements that makes Top of the Lake more than a standard cop story. Indeed, the show is less about the crime than where it occurs: in a small community where everyone knows everyone, and their fathers, and their sons, and their mothers, and their daughters. And, most problematically, their secrets.

Top of the Lake premieres tonight on the Sundance Channel. Beginning today, Flavorpill will host a series of screening parties in New York to coincide with each episode’s airing; click here for info.