Top of the Lake
Jane Campion's New Zealand-set drama stars Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan
Jane Campion directs Elisabeth Moss in the stirring TV tale of a local mystery in an evocative New Zealand. Brian Donaldson senses another small screen triumph
Long gone are the days when television was seen as a mere stepping stone to making it in the film world. This is especially true with all those quality American dramas we’ve been spoilt by over the last couple of decades: from Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe in The West Wing right up to Kevin Spacey sidestepping the big screen to appear in political dramas such as Recount and House of Cards, and Steve Buscemi having his face shot off in The Sopranos after doing them the favour of directing one of the show’s finest ever episodes.
And as one of the most heavily anticipated drama events of the year, Top of the Lake heralds acclaimed film director Jane Campion’s move on to the small screen. Even now, any story about Campion will feature a caption relating to 1993’s Palme d’Or-winning The Piano, but this six-part serial shot in her native New Zealand should give people something else to refer to.
While an impressively starry cast has been assembled (Holly Hunter, Peter Mullan, Elisabeth Moss to start), the location plays its part as a key character in the show. The remote wilds of New Zealand’s spectacular South Island are as crucial to the atmosphere in Top of the Lake as the Forest of Dean was for The Singing Detective and the projects of Baltimore were for The Wire. ‘I am in love with the intense beauty of southernmost New Zealand and excited to be setting a story in this end-of-the-world paradise,’ enthused Campion. ‘To be able to tell the story over six hours gives myself and my brilliant team a chance to make something truly absorbing and memorable.’
And if the opening episode is any guide, it looks like living up to that aim. A 12-year-old girl called Tui walks into a freezing lake, from where she is rescued and later discovered to be five months pregnant. The girl is less than keen to reveal anything about the father, especially to the very male local police force. When child protection expert Detective Robin Griffin (Moss) arrives, Tui is no more willing to divulge key information to her new confidante.
Meanwhile, a mobile women’s refuge led by the thoroughly mysterious GJ (Hunter) settles down on land earmarked by the area’s local drug baron Matt Mitcham (Mullan) who just so happens to be Tui’s father. As personal battles surface, the drama develops from much more than just a guessing game over the identity of the baby’s father. ‘Top of the Lake is a classic mythic struggle,’ explains Campion. ‘Robin maintains a light and love for Tui, but it takes her by surprise to realise the lost girl is also herself.’
For Elisabeth Moss (who has just been seen taking new steps towards power at the end of Mad Men’s sixth season), the opportunity to play another strong but flawed female character was irresistible. ‘Robin believes in finding the truth about a situation no matter what and that sets her apart from a few characters in this world. There are so many lies and secrets, and people constantly deceiving everyone else. But she just comes in with this blind search for the truth.’
Top of the Lake starts on BBC Two, Sat 13 Jul, 9.10pm.