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Review: Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake

Jane Campion is at it again with Top of the Lake, a seven hour miniseries that debuted at this year’s Sundance Festival and is airing on The Sundance Channel starting this week. Set in Campion’s native New Zealand, the series may be one of her best works to date, straddling the exquisite blend of feature-length work and the flexibility of miniseries television, which allows for expanded storylines, increased complexity, and so much more character development. The result illustrates the value of the miniseries model, showing that it should enjoy more prominence on US airwaves in contrast to endlessly running series which ultimately drive themselves into the ground.

In this piece, where the drama is driven by the characters, the length allows for quiet, slow, elegant development that lends Top of the Lake a graceful, airy sensibility. It’s thrilling to watch the lives and histories of the characters unfold as their internal landscapes constantly shift in response to the environments around them, leaving viewers bobbing in their wake. Nothing is as it seems in this miniseries, and nothing can turn out as one might predict.

One of the best comparisons to the show is Twin Peaks, which shares the slightly creepy, slightly off, small town aesthetic that makes Top of the Lake so outstanding. While Twin Peaks tended slightly more toward the biting and borderline zany, it, too, had the slightly slow-moving, murky aesthetic of Top of the Lake, along with the grim reminder that small town life comes with its own dark secrets.

The show opens with Tui Mitcham, a 12 year old girl, wading deeper and deeper into the waters of a lake in what appears to be a suicide attempt. We quickly learn that she’s five months pregnant, triggering an investigation into what happened to her, and then Tui disappears.

Subsequent events involve the hunt for Tui Mitcham and simultaneous investigation into her pregnancy, along with the uncovering of secrets the town wished had stayed away from public examination. Drugs, sex, and other sins lie waiting to be unearthed, and the drama builds up into a crescendo that Campion compares to a novel form, noting that the series was produced with a specific and definitive ending in mind. It is not open-ended or designed to create a hook for future productions: this is it.

The characters are pulled into and around each other in a complex vortex as they grapple with their past, their present, and their future, all while battling over the fate of Tui Mitcham. Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The West Wind) stars as Robin Griffin, an investigator trained in handling such cases who’s returned home to care for her ailing mother, and is brought face to face with local law enforcement and incidents in her past that she’d rather forget. Opposite her sits Holly Hunter as GJ, a charismatic, strange cultish leader of a band of women clinging to her for answers they can only really find inside themselves.

Like Campion’s other works, Top of the Lake takes advantage of the landscape itself as a character, using the environment of New Zealand to frame this gritty, dark, mysterious, and endlessly unsettling thriller. At times it seems almost supernatural, but it’s rooted firmly in the real world, and it’s reminiscent of Nordic Noir, with its dark, moody lighting, dramatic camera angles and composition, and sparse, tense use of music. It’s also deeply emotional in a way that much US television is hesitant to be; unabashed when it comes to emotive, chilling scenes and the exploration of taboo subjects like post-menopausal sexuality and rape.

Artistically, this atmospheric and deeply enigmatic piece is a masterwork; Campion’s love of filmmaking and delight in her craft shows through in each carefully structured scene, as does that of the crew. From the painstakingly dressed set pieces to the meticulously lit night scenes, Top of the Lake is a show that lives and breathes film as art, not just entertainment, and the result is a striking and visually compelling piece that it becomes all too easy to drown in.

As a collaborative work, Top of the Lake seems to have brung out the best from Moss, Hunter, and Campion; for that alone, it is worth watching. These three women are at the top of their game here, producing outstanding and amazing work that showcases their full dynamic range in one of the best ways possible. Top of the Lake is a quiet, understated, and utterly devastating production, filled with characters and scenery who cut to the bone, and this allows the craft of the piece to shine.

Edgy, modern, surreal, and provocative, Top of the Lake is must-see television. You won’t want to miss an episode, and you will find yourself talking about it for days after viewing; and be sure to prepare your DVRs, because you’re probably going to be wanting to watch again, and again, and again, to wrestle all the rich marrow from this incredible production.