‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’ Review: Elisabeth Moss Returns for an Engrossing New Story

     September 8, 2017


Ignoring shifts in cast and subject matter, the most noticeable difference between the brilliant first season of Jane Campion and Gerard Lee‘s Top of the Lake and its second season, Top of the Lake: China Girl, is in setting. The original series, set in the New Zealand wilds surrounding the town of Paradise, felt primordial and surreal, as Elisabeth Moss‘ Detective Robin Griffin explored the verdant environs for a missing pregnant 12-year-old named Tui (Jacqueline Joe). Griffin’s return to Paradise, her hometown and the setting of her terrifying, life-altering rape as a teenager, felt like Eve returning to Eden after being cast out, reinforced by the unsparing lessons of the outside world and untrusting of Adam and his perverse, condescending brethren.


Image via Sundance

In contrast, China Girl is set in the buttoned-up, largely affluent suburbs of Sydney, where Griffin has been assigned to investigate the murder of a pregnant Jane Doe whose body washes up on the beach, stuffed in a rolling suitcase. There’s little of the wilderness in China Girl, replaced instead with the cliffs and sand that lead you out into the oblivion of the ocean. Where the homes of the first season felt like natural extensions of the strange, gorgeous lands, there’s something far more domestic and ordinary about the apartments, offices, brothels, restaurants, and schools of Australia’s destination metropolis. And yet, there is a sense that it’s all a meticulous veneer, a docile mask for a world run by murderous nihilists and self-satisfied misogynists, rapists and pimps, men and their monstrous impulses.

Another difference is in how the drama and the core mystery of the season unfolds. In this case, we know early on who put the young Jane Doe in the suitcase and tossed her into the South Pacific, so the search for the killers and the reasons why she had to die are key elements to the drama but they are less important than Griffin’s state of mind and how the case affects her, particularly when it’s revealed that a grotesque philosopher-pimp nicknamed Puss (David Dencik) is dating someone close to her. The first season was about how women survive a world ruled by men, many of whom are happy enough to excuse rape or blame the victim, whereas China Girl is about protection, identity, and creating a home where a young woman can learn to be herself rather than man’s utility. In this, there may be no more direct symbolic image than the cracked suitcase with strands of Jane Doe’s black hair sneaking out; woman as little more than a nice piece of luggage to be used and tossed away at their discretion.


Image via Sundance TV

Toxic masculinity has been part and parcel of Campion’s work since The Piano and Holy Smoke but it’s never been quite so overwhelming as it is in Top of the Lake. Indeed, no show has so consistently evoked a convincing portrayal of how women must coexist with men, who statistically are one of the primary reasons for unnatural death in women worldwide. Puss uses a dubious sob story about a tortured childhood to excuse his self-centered worldview, even as its clear that his cynicism and nihilism are meant to convey dominance over other, more empathetic or civil men, and ultimately control vulnerable young women to the point where he can comfortably abuse and pimp them out. For all his (possibly feigned) complexity and traumatic history, Dencik’s beast yearns for the same thing as the bourgeoisie he readily critiques: money, power, attention, unquestioned respect, and sex.

Puss is an extreme case, as is the explosive return of a villain from the past, but even the glut of seemingly sane men in the story are guilty of rampant misogyny. In the fourth episode, Robin’s daughter Mary (Alice Englert) attends a dance with her cuckolded adoptive father, Pyke (Ewen Leslie), that Puss crashes. But before that uproar even arrives, there is a choreographed dance in which fathers and daughters blur the line between paterfamilias and partner. When Puss, who is much older than Mary, essentially attempts to have sex with her on the dance floor later, it’s difficult not to see his action as just cutting through the bullshit and indulging the desires that the seemingly banal dance represents. Even Griffin’s boss, Adrian (Clayton Jacobson), is in the middle of replacing his wife with a younger woman, namely Griffin’s partner, Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), who is pregnant with his child.


Image via Sundance

Some of this symbolism can come off as rigid or obvious, to the point that Campion and Lee miss the unscripted messiness of human behavior, but it never dilutes the power of her style or the story itself. There is a balance in Campion’s visual style that sets pulpy, expressive flourishes against a sincere portrayal of a life lived under the thumb of unhinged masculine impulses. One could perceive China Girl as a fantastic feminist buddy cop movie with Moss and Christie as much as an excoriating vision of real-life maternal horror, wherein Griffin must watch the daughter she is just starting to bond with destroy herself in the name of a drugged-up pimp.

For all Campion’s ironclad skepticism about the motives of men, she never allows the tone of her criticisms to tip over into full-blown cynicism. If Puss is indeed telling the truth about his childhood and formative years, he is a misogynist at least partially molded by his mother and the horrors of the world. He’s deserving of a modicum of empathy but not forgiveness for his increasingly violent and perverse actions.

And it’s not like Campion and Lee give women in this universe a pass for their questionable decisions. Mary’s adoptive mother, Julia (Nicole Kidman), has left Pyke for another woman, a move that pushed Mary away from her and toward her goofy, sensitive, and conflict-avoiding father. Kidman, given pronounced features like freckles and what looks like dental implants, portrays Julia as both a woman who is proud of finding herself and is yet routinely tormented for not knowing what she wanted from life until middle-age, doled out primarily by Mary. The aforementioned features play up both her fears of inadequacy as an adoptive mother and Mary’s burgeoning belief that Griffin, her birth mother, is her true maternal caregiver. She seems borderline otherworldly in look, but Kidman grounds her frustrations in an inability to excuse who she is to anyone anymore, even if it means allowing her immense privilege to show in front of Puss. And Miranda, for all the humor and humanity that Christie gives her, seems openly indifferent to her role as a soon-to-be mother and the “other woman,” to the point that she regularly drinks and smokes cigarettes in front of Griffin.


Image via Sundance

All these matters are at the forefront, which means that much of the Jane Doe case is relegated to the periphery. Would that Campion and Lee could have worked in more aspects of the investigation into the narrative in lieu of building a predictable spark of romance among key characters. Still, what we do get of the case is more intimately told than the usual focus on process, such as the scenes with Brett (Lincoln Vickery), a gamer and charter member of a group of men who rank and review prostitutes, who turns out to have a connection with Jane Doe. Even he is not exactly who he seems at first, and Campion neither spares him nor condemns him in relating his ridiculous lifestyle. Lee and her are no longer looking for a clear answer of who’s to blame, mostly because there isn’t one in this case or in the original run of episodes. Looking out over an ocean rather than a lake this time, the creators, along with their rousing, thoughtful cast, are swept up in the complexities of making peace with a ruinous life, which often means being in a constant state of anxiety, fury, and unimaginable heartache.

Rating: ★★★★

Top of the Lake: China Girl airs on Sundance as a three-night event beginning September 10th at 9 p.m. EST.