If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Jane Campion marks yet another first-rate filmmaker (“The Piano”) who when faced with an uphill climb to get such idiosyncratic smart-films as “Bright Star” financed and released, has transitioned to long-form television. It’s a sheer delight to see her stretch out in a six-hour mini-series format with “Top of the Lake” (Sundance Channel, March 18), a gorgeous mystery thriller set in the New Zealand vacation country where Campion spent her summers growing up. Unusually, the Sundance Channel unveiled the entire series in one day at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
Inspired by mini-series “Carlos” and backed by the BBC, Sundance Channel and Arte, “King’s Speech” producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning, Campion, co-writer Gerard Lee (“Sweetie”), and co-director Garth Davis had a decent budget with which to conjure up a moody world where men and women do not get along and domestic violence is a given.
Campion wanted to work with commercial director Davis, she told me before Sundance, because “he was innovative, and responded to the material. It gave me a chance to expand and play with the characters and really enjoy them in a way you can’t with features. I had a great time, although it was stressful making it. We had to shoot 90 minutes every four and a half weeks!”
They split the episodes, with Campion shooting the first, fourth and last. The local sheriff (“300″‘s David Wenham) and his team resent the presence of big-city detective Robin Griffin (“Mad Men” star Elizabeth Moss) who happens to be visiting her ill mother and is called in to help when a 12-year-old girl walks into the freezing lake and turns out to be five months pregnant.
Griffin suspects that the father is the girl’s tough-scrabble dad Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullen), a violent thug who nobody wants to confront, most especially the hapless real estate broker who allows a wellness guru (Holly Hunter) and her flock of damaged women to settle in open trailers on the stunning piece of lake-front property called Paradise. That’s because as far as Mitcham and his rangy horse-riding gun-toting kids are concerned, it’s theirs.
This hardboiled New Zealand procedural boasts a scenic landscape rife with violent undercurrents. Campion creates yet another woman detective who faces deep layers of cultural misogyny, not unlike “Prime Suspect” or “The Killing.” It’s also like a gender-reversed “Justified,” in that the cop is reluctantly returning to navigate all-too familiar home turf. Moss is more sexy and athletic in this contemporary role than she is on “Mad Men.”
Campion compares the long form to reading a novel: “You can live with the characters, live inside a world and an experience. I remember seeing ‘Deadwood’ for the first time and jumping off my seat, it was so radical, so exciting. With feature filmmaking you feel a little bit gagged by the need to attract audiences, to be audience-friendly, which stops you in a way from being challenging and innovative and exciting. It was a shock to feel provocation and support for an artist.”
I can’t wait to watch the rest of the series. Review round-up below.
The disappearance of a pregnant preteen exposes the raw wounds at the heart of an isolated southern New Zealand community in the absorbing and richly atmospheric “Top of the Lake.” Centered around Elisabeth Moss’ excellent performance as a detective for whom the case uncovers disturbing echoes of her own troubled history, this multistranded crime saga from writer-director Jane Campion and co-creator Gerard Lee is satisfyingly novelistic in scope and dense in detail. Yet it also boasts something more, a singular and provocative strangeness that lingers like a chill after the questions of who-dun-what have been laid to rest.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to discuss “Top Of The Lake” without at least addressing the vague similarities in set-up to AMC’s once-cancelled, now-revived, “The Killing.” Like AMC’s show, Campion’s dramatic murder mystery centers on a female protagonist and detective so personally drawn to and then invested in a crime involving a young girl, it consumes her and supersedes her pre-ordained plans… Some of Moss’ most intense and gripping work to date that will surely demonstrate she needs to be tapped for more lead drama roles.
This writer was only able to see two episodes of “Top Of The Lake,” but he’s already drawn into to something that feels like it will grow more haunting and powerful as it goes on – the promise of the entire story being completed in seven episodes, rather than drawn on for two agonizing seasons, makes it seem all the more worthwhile.