Taking the concept of binge-watching to a whole new theatrical level, we were lucky enough to spend most of our Sunday at the Berlin Film Festival in a large auditorium consuming Jane Campion’s six-hour “Top of the Lake” TV series, which will air in seven episodes on The Sundance Channel starting March 18th. It was a great experience, and not just because of the quality storytelling and filmmaking on display, but because of the sense of community and buzz you get at this type of event. We saw the show divided into three two-hour chunks, and during the brief intermissions, the audience buzzed with speculation: who was the father of the unborn child? Was X dead or alive? What was the significance of Y? Strangers shared increasingly oddball speculations with their neighbors (the guy behind me had a very bizarre theory involving a used condom that was shot down not just on the grounds of there being no evidence of it in the show, but being biologically impossible too). It all must have been rather gratifying for the film team attending, including Campion, co-writer (and collaborator on Campion’s first feature “Sweetie”) Gerard Lee, actors Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan, and producer Ian Canning (“Shame,” “The King’s Speech”). And indeed, Campion did seem suitably pleased as she delivered her thank yous after the marathon, to a standing ovation and over applause that just didn’t stop.
Of course most viewers’ experience aren’t going to have this same sort of live community feel (Twitter etc. notwithstanding), but even subtracting the difference that ambiance can make, we feel confident in saying there’s a treat in store here. Frankly, if you were watching ‘TOTL’ in a concrete bunker a thousand miles away from the next human being, it would still be a hugely compelling, enjoyable show, featuring outstanding photography and sense of mood, genuine suspense, a surprising amount of humor and a clutch of performances so terrific they are riveting to watch.
We reviewed/teased/raved about the first two episodes back at Sundance, and now having seen the full thing, we can say the show delivers on the promise of those first two installments. The New Zealand photography is beautifully cinematic, as it should be considering what a huge part the wilderness — the hills, the forests, the titular lake — plays in how the narrative unfolds: see it on as big a screen as possible. The performances, especially from leads Elisabeth Moss and Peter Mullan, are things of wonder, with Moss a wholly different animal from Peggy on “Mad Men,” a role she completely owns, but her Robin Griffin is no less fully inhabited. And Mullan is a force of mean-spirited, mercurial nature, whose every appearance is loaded with a charge of violent unpredictability. Holly Hunter, David Wenham, and a whole host of new faces take strong supporting roles, and special mention should go to the juvenile performers who provide many of the show’s most heartbreaking and real moments.
So how “Campion” is it? Well, aside from the obvious and the surface — it features a lot of pivotal female roles, several of whom sport very Campion-esque long grey hair — the show, to its credit, does not feel overly authorial, and neither do Campion’s directorial episodes differ in any discernible way from co-director Garth Davis‘. It’s made to be watched by a wide audience, and made within a recognizable genre with rules and conventions it doesn’t break, but interprets elegantly. In fact, we’d hazard that ‘TOTL’ is not really a television show at all, and not just because of the widescreen vistas. As Campion herself said, the filmmakers always thought of it as a film, or more accurately a “novel,” and the length and breadth of the endeavor bears this out, as does its structure. It doesn’t suffer from the kind of repetition and monotony a more episodic show might, especially when watched all at once, and from the very outset, you know you are heading toward a definite conclusion. This is not a show that you can feel being written stage by stage with an eye on a potential second season (not that we’d be averse), it’s a filmic story that simply requires six hours to tell right.
And the storytelling is the greatest pleasure it affords, with the well-drawn characters caught up in a twisty turny plot that is as much about personal revelations for our principals as it is about crimesolving. So while you might be able to spot a few of the turns in advance — and there is one revelation bearing a striking similarity to a film we won’t mention yet for fear of being found dead in a desert for SPOILING — for the most part the character-driven nature of the piece means even the more predictable twists have unforeseen ramifications. In fact, it’s easy to read it as less a crime procedural and more a story about homecoming, about returning to the ghosts of your past that are also the roots of who you are and will forever be. Whether Robin embraces, succumbs to or vanquishes those demons becomes fully as gripping as the whodunnit.
To say more about the plot and avoid even the merest hint of any spoilers would be difficult, so we’ll confine ourselves to the setup: Robin Griffin returns to her childhood home Laketop from Sydney to spend time with her dying mother. As it happens, while she’s there, a 12-year-old girl (terrific newcomer Jacqueline Joe) walks into the freezing lake only to be discovered to be pregnant when she’s rescued. Since Robin is a detective who specializes in cases involving children, she’s drafted in to help the local police, headed by Al (Wenham). But the girl’s father (Mullen), patriarch of a clan of thugs and engaged in a land battle with a newly established commune of women (headed by Hunter as their guru), has shady reasons of his own for refusing to cooperate with Robin’s investigation.
There are a hundred more strands, involving local youth, a crime in Robin’s past, and a potential romance, but we’ll leave it at that. As for flaws, we did see the gears grind a bit during the second half where Robin sometimes seems to be a few steps behind the audience as to what’s going on, despite having a lot of the same information. The effect of that, especially in the finale, is to ratchet up the suspense, but it does come at the expense of a little bit of our admiration for Robin’s smarts, and feels a bit manipulative and frustrating. But it doesn’t impact on our overall enjoyment too much as whatever it lacks in strict plot discipline it makes up for in emotional satisfaction: this is quality event TV, and we’re dying for everyone to see it. Not least because there’s one tiny aspect that we were SURE we had right in advance and which didn’t appear to be the case and we need to obsess over it STAT. Tune in March 18th and then we’ll talk. [A-]