TV review: Top of the Lake – China Girl, BBC Two (5 stars)

TV review: Top of the Lake – China Girl, BBC Two

Elizabeth Moss is joined by Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie in the second season Jane Campion's superior thriller

Elisabeth Moss is on a bit of a roll. Currently starring in dystopian sci-fi The Handmaid's Tale and now returning for the second season of Jane Campion's superior crime drama Top of the Lake.

China Girl begins with the disposal of a body, dumped in the ocean like garbage, then opens up in scope. Detective Robin Griffin (Moss) has returned to Australia, still reeling from the events of series one in the New Zealand. Much of the plot hinges on 17-year-old Mary Edwards (Alice Englert) and her dysfunctional relationship with her adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and Ewen Leslie) and her significantly older boyfriend Puss (David Dencik). We don't want to give too much away but it occupies similarly morally complex territory as the first series, dealing with sexual exploitation, prostitution and human trafficking.

Director and writer Jane Campion excels when it comes to strong female roles. Here creating (with co-writer Gerard Lee) a multifaceted thriller populated by realistic (often flawed) women. The murder mystery might drive the plot but there's a strong theme of motherhood at the centre of China Girl, nestled amongst the death and darkness.

Even with such grim material Moss is a joy to watch. She's such an expressive actor you can feel her pain and anguish in every scene. Kidman is on a similar hot streak, after Lion, The Beguiled and Big Little Lies she's rediscovered her acting mojo, with a wonderfully dressed down but passionate portrayal of a protective, prickly mother. Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones' Brienne of Tarth) is another welcome addition to the cast as a gawky over eager police officer assigned to the case.

There's a languid, considered pace – the body isn't discovered until the closing minutes of the opening episode – making room for deft character moments, building up a web of links between the main players (there's only one central coincidence that slightly stretches credibility). As you'd expect from Campion there's an emotional resonance that goes beyond most film or TV. The six-hour format gives her even more room to breathe. Top of the Lake is superlative television, overflowing with beautifully understated performances, that isn't afraid to question inequality in society.

Top of the Lake starts on BBC Two, Thu 27 Jul, 9pm, with all six episodes available on iPlayer from 10pm.