A few months ago I reviewed the brilliant BBC drama The Hour – sadly never to return for a third series, a travesty made worse by closing the second series with a never to be resolved cliffhanger! My piece racked up the hits when the BBC website linked to my blog. So, I was really chuffed to be offered the opportunity by BBC Worldwide (via The Big Shot) to take a look at drama series Top of the Lake.
So, what is Top of the Lake all about? The scene is set for everything that follows as Tui, a 12 year-old girl, walks chest-deep into the freezing waters of an alpine lake in New Zealand. She is five-months pregnant and won’t say who the father is. Then she disappears. Robin Griffin is a gutsy but inexperienced detective called in to investigate. Her search for Tui turns into a personal obsession, Robin realises that ‘finding the girl is tantamount to finding herself’ – yes, that sounds a bit hackneyed but don’t let it put you off.
Top of the Lake comes from the Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion and the producers of The King’s Speech, also Oscar-winning. It stars Elizabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin. I adored Moss as Peggy in MadMen, but to be honest I was ten minutes into viewing before her other role dawned on me, and I love MadMen! The stark contrast between the characters is a credit to her versatility as an actress. David Wenham (Lord of the Rings), Peter Mullan (War Horse) and Holly Hunter (The Piano) also star – so the sales blurb for this drama sets a high benchmark!
Overall the casting is superb. Local drug-dealing no-gooder Matt (Peter Mullan) is Tui’s father, and he’s as sinister as hell. However, one character grated on me. GJ (Holly Hunter) is the leader of an improvised commune serving as a halfway-house for women struggling with various traumas. She’s a white-haired and rather frazzled therapist-cum-healer type who tries to cram deep philosophical meaning into every slowly-delivered sentence. Although well-acted GJ felt a little too much of a cliche; just a floral bandana away from being a generic hippy stereotype. Perhaps she just reminded me of a similar character in something else, so I can’t claim it would be an observation you may also make.
Every episode is visually gorgeous, the craggy New Zealand scenery has such a commanding presence that it would warrant being credited as a member of the cast. The art of the Colourist is often overlooked but Olivier Fontenay deserves a shout for his work on the series. The subdued cool blue and grey palette helps create the bleak loneliness of the town. Every scene appears to take place just moments before the rain. Reflecting the plot, this is a place where the sun struggles to shine. The town appears covered in a dark shroud that isolates it from the rest of humanity in a very disconcerting manner that creates a creepy, other-worldly atmosphere.
In the first episode I was impressed by the ample time given for the dialogue and the scenery to breathe. Top of the Lake is not a full-throttle detective drama, it is a carefully considered feature film in episodic form. This is a drama that doesn’t feel the need to rush; the intrigue provided by the chilling opening scene of Tui wading into the lake almost sustains the very gradual development of the episode – almost. Having initially enjoyed the kicked-back pace it went on to feel laboured in places. That said, I really urge you to stick with it because the second episode steps on the gas and picks up the speed without sacrificing any of the attention to detail in the first. The characters begin to feel more fully-formed and the initial bleakness takes a step back to become a very apt backdrop to the developing and deepening investigation.
Robin begins to show just how passionate she is about Tui’s disappearance. She is ballsy and takes no shit from any of the suspects. She has a painful backstory with parallels to the investigation and at times that anger erupts, but always justified and sometimes even amusing. It is difficult to feel any sympathy for the peculiar assortment of outcasts – Robin and partner DCI Al Parker (David Wenham) frequently seem to be the only relatively normal human-beings in the furthest outpost of mankind. The town’s residents are all damaged in some sense, they nurse old wounds with a diet of alcohol and sex at every opportunity. There are sex-scenes aplenty throughout the series, you’ll cringe because every encounter is undeniably grim and depressing. That said, the ‘five-minute fuck’ almost caused me to spray coffee out of my nose. I shan’t reveal more, but it was an amusing aside which I’m glad survived the cut. Anyhow, you have been warned, don’t watch with grandmother!
The final two episodes brilliantly convey a descent into despair as Robin’s past and the circumstances of Tui’s disappearance begin to converge. Moss’s portrayal of a woman on the edge of some form of breakdown is tremendous. Following such a slow-burn to this point the conclusion of the series actually came as something of a swift surprise. I hazard a guess that you won’t have figured out the whodunit, or indeed what they’ve actually done right up until the last moment – and then you’ll feel stupid for not getting it sooner. You’ll roll back in your mind to all the subtle nuances in the performances and really appreciate why the producers are Oscar-winning.
Top of the Lake is grimy, sordid and bleak – but also profoundly thought-provoking. It’s worth checking out!
COMPETITION! You can WIN your own copy of the 3-disc DVD retail box of Top of The Lake, with Cast and Crew Interviews. To be in with a chance of bagging the series as a freebie (there’s only one copy to give away) you simply need to share this page on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter and – most crucially – post a comment here using your genuine email address so I can get in touch with the randomly selected winner. Last date for entries is 31st August 2013.