The first season of Sundance TV’s Top of the Lake was a thing of dark beauty. Set in the arcadian dreamland of New Zealand’s South Island, Elisabeth Moss’s detective Robin Griffin found herself on a case of child rape that took her back to her own traumatized past. The vistas were idyllic but the story was fierce.
And yet when it came to discussing a second season with creator and director Jane Campion, Moss had just one request: “I wanted Robin to go to a deeper, darker place. I used the words ‘f***ed up’ over and over. I think I phrased it as, ‘I want her to have a very complicated moral problem to deal with.’ One where she is put in a situation where she has to behave in a very morally questionable way. And I got it.”
Top of the Lake: China Girl takes Griffin to both a darker place and a different location. It’s set in Sydney, Australia, four years after the original story, with a now celibate Griffin desperate to find work, shift focus, get on a case. “She’s convinced, as usual, that work will solve everything. If she can just bury herself in a case that will somehow fix her life,” says Moss.
A case appears, in several senses, as the body of an Asian girl is washed up on surfer’s paradise Bondi Beach trussed up in a trunk. It takes Griffin in to the world of sex tourism, corruption and child exploitation — but this time she’s not alone. Her boss Adrian (Clayton Jacobson) decides to clear his male-dominated incident room of what he calls “the leftovers” by pairing up the only two women. Enter Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie as Miranda.
“She is an unusual kind of woman,” says Christie, “a maligned woman, a woman who’s used to being excluded, used to being left outside. Not very good at anything. Not very capable, incredibly vulnerable and finds life hugely difficult. She’s failing at life on all fronts.”
Christie notes that she’s been lucky enough so far to play mainly strong women like Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones who, as she puts it, “are overcoming the obstacle of being not considered attractive, sexy, cute or traditional — they overcome that and they succeed. So with Miranda it was interesting to me to play a woman who’s unable to do any of that — because to be frank, that is life for a lot of us.”
If the “two mismatched cops” premise sounds like a crime show cliché, that’s not how it plays out — indeed, the original Top of the Lake was unusual because Campion’s interest in the mechanics of solving the crime wavered as she zoned in on character and choices. In Top of the Lake: China Girl, the girl-in-the-suitcase story often takes a back seat as Campion focuses on motherhood, femininity, and its myriad challenges. Griffin’s daughter Mary (Alice Englert), who she gave up for adoption, makes contact with her birth mother 17 years later. Mary has been rebelling against her own adopted mother Julia (Nicole Kidman) by going out with a 41-year-old man who appears to be running a brothel. (Campion says she was smuggled in to a working Sydney brothel posing as the auntie of her co-director Ariel Kleiman to talk to real Asian sex workers.)
Kidman, who like Campion is Australian, has been friends with the director ever since they teamed up on The Portrait of a Lady in 1996 and earned two Oscar nominations. On the 20th anniversary of that film, Kidman paid Campion a visit. “She said she loved the first series [of Top of the Lake] and wanted to be in it,” says Campion. “I said we have got a part — it’s pretty small though. She said, ‘I don’t care.’”
As Campion tells it, when Kidman saw just how small a part she actually had she “wasn’t quite so sure about it.” She wanted to be in every episode. “This was like a week before the shoot,” says Campion, “so over a week we rewrote it. And it’s a smart move on our part, because it’s really improved the story.”
Should Sundance TV want Detective Griffin to return for a third season, it doesn’t sound like Moss would be too difficult to convince. “I loved that character so much,” says Moss. Griffin “is maybe the most different from me of all the characters I’ve played. I’m much more animated I think and she’s much more still and closed off, so for me it’s fun to do something so different. I was basically hounding Jane for three years to do another one.”
Top of the Lake: China Girl airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.