There is something darkly meditative about Jane Campion‘s (Bright Star) work Top of the Lake, which was the first television series ever to be screened at Sundance, and definitely deserves the distinction. The premise is reminiscent of works like The Killing or even Twin Peaks, where a special investigator begins unraveling a disturbing central mystery that is ripping a small, remote town apart. In this case it’s Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss as Robin, who is home in New Zealand visiting her cancer-stricken mother when a 12 year old girl, Tui (Jacqueline Joe), the daughter of a local drug lord, is found to be five months pregnant. The father? “No one,” Tui writes down. Soon she disappears completely, and what follows is a dark and twisted journey that uncovers the moral decay of what appears to be a pristine paradise. For more on the series, hit the jump.
Robin’s investigation of Tui’s disappearance is met with resistance from all sides, including the police force, lead by a seemingly straight-laced Al Parker (David Wenham), who also appears to sit too comfortably in the town to work the case as hard as Robin feels it should be, though he does back Robin when it counts. For her part, Robin is being confronted not only by the “bogans” (i.e. rednecks) in the tiny town, but also by demons from her past, some of whom still reside there. The lake in the title also plays a key role in keeping things centralized, and has its own history of violence and death.
Spiraling out from this central story on his own, rotten tentacle is that of Matt Mitcham (the exceptional Scottish actor Peter Mullan), Tui’s father, a frightening man who more or less owns the town and who has many strange sides to him. He has three sons of note (though has produced most of the village or been sexually involved with them — the community is incestuous in many ways), two of whom are mentally vacuous and one who has a complicated relationship with Robin from before she left town, which they have now cautiously resumed.
Newly residing on the fringes of town is a tiny commune of women who are looking to free themselves from their own difficult pasts — broken women are central to this work, and their stories, including Robin and Tui’s, are often overwhelming. Heading up this makeshift brood is a strange spectre of a woman called GJ (Holly Hunter), who spouts “truths” at her fellow females in a way that is both coddling and full of revulsion (and often surprisingly funny). Mitcham considers the women trespassers on his property, and takes measures to both court them and harass them, in one of the many complicated emotional turns that Top of the Lake takes.
Campion, who co-write and directed the series, uses minimal dialogue and almost no soundtrack, letting the setting and stunning, natural, New Zealand backdrop speak for itself. The work is unhurried and densely atmospheric, and has a lot in common with the Kenneth Branagh series Wallander, which also plays disturbingly dark tales against a starkly beautiful (Swedish) landscape.
Top of the Lake is, above all, haunting, and its central mystery both grounds the storytelling while propelling it forward. It’s an intensely engaging work if you give it time to tell its story, though I would argue it grabs you from its very first scene which is both mysterious and dramatic. The accents can be dense at times, but the work is not inaccessible in the least. Elisabeth Moss sports a slight accent of her own that she handles very well — she’s really incredible in her role, which requires her to be stripped down in very raw ways.
This is one of the best series of its kind that has come around in a long time, so even though it’s slightly hidden on the Sundance Channel, take the time to find it. You won’t be disappointed.
Top of the Lake premieres Monday, March 18th at 9pm on the Sundance Channel.