Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Top of the Lake (2013)

*Minor spoilers ahead*

I don't know enough about foreign television series to know exactly when it started, but I have noticed that short series about the investigation of a single crime have been prominent in Europe for at least the past decade, and have also slowly been making their way Stateside in recent years. These have probably existed for some time abroad (perhaps someone can let me know in the comments?), but with American remakes such as AMC's The Killing (of the Danish series Forbrydelsen) and FX's The Bridge (of the Danish series Bron) - as well as remakes of British series like NBC's Prime Suspect and FOX's announced Broadchurch - they now seem more popular than ever. It's an interesting format: what would be condensed into a single episode of Law & Order is given room to breathe, and that allows for more character development and more twists and turns. If the show plays its cards right, the result is a gripping, compelling mystery that transcends the crime genre and becomes something more. But it can also easily tip over into an overly-knotty narrative that tries to hard to sell twists that don't necessarily make sense with the characters.

Top of the Lake, a New Zealand-set miniseries that aired on Sundance Channel in the U.S. last year and was co-created by the Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee, is a little bit of both of those scenarios. The series begins with Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a 12-year-old girl who attempts to drown herself in the lake that gives the town of Lake Top. Robin (Elisabeth Moss), a detective from Sydney, is called in to assist with the investigation surrounding Tui's pregnancy. From there, Robin explores the darker corners of Lake Top and her own past, including her involvement with Tui's father Matt (Peter Mullan) and her own romantic involvement with his son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright).

More after the jump.

The first thing that must be praised about the series is the location. Each episode (seven on Netflix Instant Watch, which is the Sundance order, though it aired on BBC as a six-part miniseries) features a number of shots of the gorgeous landscape, with the towering mountains and deep lake looming over everything happening around them. In general, Campion's direction - and co-director Garth Davis' - is terrific, and the series maintains a great atmosphere of dread throughout. When it comes to mystery series like this, atmosphere can be a huge factor in how the narrative plays out, and can elevate a series that's otherwise floundering (for all the flack The Killing drew, it never lost its doom-and-gloom aesthetic).

The central mystery itself, too, is interesting, as is Robin's eventually-revealed past. When it's revealed that Robin was gang-raped by a number of guys in Lake Top when she was a teenager, and then gave up the child it produced to adoption, it makes sense why she feels a determination to help Tui and find her when she runs off into the bush. Moss absolutely kills in this role, making Robin a complex character whose past informs her current actions, and the show never panders her victimhood. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Campion would write a strong, complicated, tragically human female lead character, but Moss delivers a performance that's astonishing. Mullan, too, is great as Matt, who's the local guy who's involved with much of the town, but holds "authority" and influence because the townspeople fear him rather than respect him. The tension between Robin's quest for legal justice and Matt's insistence on "real" justice - a sentiment echoed by the townspeople and local police - is the driving force of the narrative, and for the most part it works well.

The problem, though, is that there's a lot going on that never seems all that necessary, at best providing an interesting distraction and at worst feeling like added complications for the sake of having more twists. This is most glaring in the scenes involving the makeshift women's camp that's sprung up on Paradise, a chunk of land that Matt owned and buried his mother (the real estate agent who sold the land meets an unfortunate fate for his effort). The camp is based around battered women following a woman named GJ (Holly Hunter), who essentially has formed this camp just to see if anyone would follow her. There never really seems to be much of a point to having this included in the plot, apart from the few times when Robin and/or Tui wind up there looking for guidance, and it seems that the sole purpose of its existence is to be a nuisance to Matt and show the audience how terrible he is to women. The problem is that it seems like these women are nothing more than a plot device, which is especially problematic as this is a Jane Campion production, whose films have always had a strong feminist angle. That's present in Robin's development, but it feels uncomfortably absent in the camp. The scenes there just never fully connect with the rest of the narrative.

Similarly, there are a number of twists that feel included just for the sake of having a shock. The most egregious example of this is Matt's reveal that Johnno and Robin, who have been romantically involved, are possibly half-siblings in the sixth/seventh episode. At no point does this feel like a natural development, but rather an eleventh-hour complication added so that things between Johnno and Robin would be tense again. In the case, too, there are moments within the mystery where things that should have become obvious sooner - like how the chief of police, Al (David Wenham), has been neglecting similar crimes involving children, or Johnno's involvement in Robin's rape - are instead dragged out unnecessarily, making it feel like the show is creating tension just for the sake of creating tension.

It's disappointing to see a work with the heavy involvement from a talented filmmaker seem so bogged down by its worst tendencies. It is interesting to imagine what Top of the Lake would have been like as, say, a feature film or even just a four-part miniseries. As it stands, however, it's a decent miniseries with some great ideas and performances, but ultimately falls to extraneous plot elements for the sake of mystery. 

Series grade: B-

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