There may be no filmmaker better at portraying the differences between men and women than Jane Campion, whose latest work, the masterful seven-part miniseries “Top of the Lake,” premieres tonight, March 18th, on the Sundance Channel. Putting it that way has the potential to make her output sound strident instead of vital, unsetting and sexy, all qualities her films and now television projects have displayed, but it’s the truth. Campion has an unparalleled interest in and endlessly provocative take on how the sexes clash, communicate and come together, from the jagged dark romance of “The Piano” to the duel at the center of “Holy Smoke!” and the dreamy, ominous eroticism of the unfairly maligned “In the Cut.”
“Top of the Lake,” which Campion co-directed with Garth Davis and wrote with Gerard Lee (her collaborator on “Sweetie”), comes to TV after having screened in full at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The series is set in the fictional New Zealand area of Laketop, remote enough to operate by its own set of rules, ones different from those in nearby resort town Queenstown — when something bad happens, the police prefer to have talks with the residents rather than ruffle any feathers by coming in to lay down the law.
Laketop is stunning and half-feral, a place where the layer of generally accepted civilization and law and order are thinner than most, and it contains within it a patriarchal outpost and a corresponding female gathering that coexist uneasily if never quite in direct opposition. Both exude a pull on an isolated community troubled by the disappearance of Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), a 12-year-old local girl who was recently discovered to be five months pregnant by a man whose identity she won’t or can’t disclose.
Ruling one side is Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the girl’s father, a violent, charismatic man who lives on a compound with his two grown sons and other disreputable-looking hangers-on who drift in and out, and who has considerable power in the community. On the other is a camp for abused or cast-off women made up of shipping containers converted to living quarters on an area of land called Paradise, and headed up by GJ (Holly Hunter), a stern and not at all motherly font of wisdom. It’s likely not a coincidence that Matt and GJ resemble each other, both wiry types with long gray hair and harsh demeanors, though GJ’s is the more benign presence (and Mullan’s the more impressive performance, both fascinating and frightening).
Into their world comes, or rather returns, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a Sydney detective home to visit her mother, whose cancer has flared up again. Robin latches on to Tui’s case even before she goes missing, for reasons personal and out of an innate connection due to their shared gender. The first time she sees the girl, right after her pregnancy has been discovered, she’s seated in an interrogation room like a suspect, the primarily male local law enforcement looming over her. They, like the girl’s father, assume she’s gotten herself into this situation, with Matt offering a kind of shrugging, and, from his perspective, benevolent acceptance that his not yet teenage offspring is sexually active and in need of a trip to the nearest clinic that will handle a second trimester abortion.
It’s Robin who tries to coax answers about what happened from the girl, and who points out this is at least statutory rape. And it’s Robin who leads the charge to find Tui when she disappears — as both a local and an outsider, she’s able to demand action, though it doesn’t happen easily. Those who aren’t afraid or invested in leaving the waters undisturbed treat her with a paternal condescension, like her boss Al Parker (David Wenham), whose gallantry also serves to undercut her.
Has Tui run away? Or has she been vanished by someone wanting to get rid of the baby and DNA evidence she’s carrying? “Top of the Lake” is a mystery, but it’s also a portrait of a community perched on the splendid, savage edge of the world. Campion uses the investigation as a way to weave in her protagonist’s and the place’s past and present in a way that recalls John Sayles “Lone Star,” but with a scope that expands with the luxury of a 353-minute runtime. Moss, who’s terrific here, guarded but raw (if not always solidly accented), finds in her character an unstable strength — she knows what’s right, but runs up again and again against an impassive wall of those believe otherwise and who in Laketop are the majority. And she’s not as steady on her feet as she wants to appear, as we start to realize as we learn about her childhood in the town and her complicated past with Johnno Mitcham (Thomas M. Wright), Matt’s outcast son who’s been camping by the lake.
With the Steubenville trial in the news, sparking serious discussions about the language and attitudes used to describe rape, the razor sharp depictions of sexual violence and gender politics in “Top of the Lake” give the series a sense of urgency — especially as it provides a reminder that even outside of Matt’s grittily masculine kingdom, the reigning outlook on the world remains primarily male-informed. Campion ties these themes in with a larger, complex view of a place shaped by its history, its location and by economic pressures, seen through visuals of moodily poetic and sometimes surreal beauty.
Its dramas are set again a fantastic backdrop of mountains and bodies of water that provides an escape from the perils of civilization as well as a danger unto itself — though the recurring theme of the fall of mankind suggests that the damage people do each other once out of the age of innocence is the greater threat. “Top of the Lake” doesn’t divide itself neatly into episodes — it feels more like one coherent six-hour whole — but taken over several weeks or in a single gulp, it’s surely one of the best things you’ll see on TV this year.