REVIEW: 'Mad Women'? Elisabeth Moss Bares Teeth & Body In Jane Campion's 'Top Of The Lake'
Top of the Lake
The disappearance of a pregnant preteen exposes the raw wounds at the heart of an isolated southern New Zealand community in the absorbing and richly atmospheric Top of the Lake. Centered around Elisabeth Moss’ excellent performance as a detective for whom the case uncovers disturbing echoes of her own troubled history, this multistranded crime saga from writer-director Jane Campion and co-creator Gerard Lee is satisfyingly novelistic in scope and dense in detail. Yet it also boasts something more, a singular and provocative strangeness that lingers like a chill after the questions of who-dun-what have been laid to rest.
Prestigious berths in Park City and Berlin will precede a distinguished smallscreen life for the Sundance Channel miniseries, which begins airing March 18. The six-hour, seven-part production (reviewed from a six-episode version prior to its festival bows) should prove an enticing proposition for fans of investigative dramas in the vein of Twin Peaks and The Killing, even though the yarn’s less procedural-oriented nature and primary focus on a rape case provide early clues that Campion and Co. are treading different thematic territory here. But by far the material’s most distinctive element is its setting, a wooded region of stunning natural beauty and surpassing human ugliness that lends a uniquely bleak and bitter tang to this well-worn genre format.
Sharing helming duties with Aussie newcomer Garth Davis, Campion has delivered her first work set and shot in her native New Zealand since The Piano 20 years ago. Fittingly, it marks a reunion of sorts with that film’s star, Holly Hunter, cast here as GJ, an enigmatic, silver-haired guru who has come to the town of Laketop to open a camp for abused and/or abandoned women. Unfortunately, the camp has been built on a piece of land — the ironically named Paradise — that has long been eyed by local drug lord Matt Mitcham (a superb Peter Mullan), who seems to own everyone and everything in town.
Mitcham also seems to have fathered half the local population; the youngest of his offspring is 12-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe), his daughter by his third (ex-)wife, a Thai immigrant. One frigid morning, Tui is seen wandering into the titular lake, as though in a trance; a subsequent medical examination reveals she’s five months pregnant, though she won’t disclose who the father is. The determined but relatively inexperienced Det. Robin Griffin (Moss) is called in to lead the statutory-rape investigation, although she soon finds herself looking into a possible kidnapping-murder scenario when Tui suddenly goes missing.
Over the course of the six-hour running time, the story abounds in the requisite twists and complications: The lake coughs up the body of a local businessman, while suspicion falls on a hermit who turns out to be a convicted sex offender. But these developments are doled out at a measured clip, and the filmmakers seem less interested in sustaining forward momentum than in painting a vivid panorama of this broken community, a town cloaked in a dark and vaguely incestuous malaise.
From the hooligans (Jay Ryan, Kip Chapman) who carry out Mitcham’s bidding to the sad-sack women who gather at GJ’s camp, there’s a pervasive sense of human lives either wasted or forced into familiar and depressing patterns. The wildness of the surroundings informs the wildness of the characters: Parents and children are forever at odds, and acts of violence and violation are distressingly commonplace, to the point where even Mitcham reacts to the news of Tui’s ordeal not with outrage, but with a cynical roll of the eye (“She’s a slut, like her dad was a slut!”).