Four years after lauded New Zealand noir mini-series “Top of the Lake,” Jane Campion, who was cheered at the Cannes 70th anniversary celebration as the only woman director to win the Palme d’Or (1994 Oscar-winner “The Piano”), returned to the festival with “Top of the Lake: China Girl.” She and Season 1 co-writer Gerard Lee debuted all six SundanceTV episodes on May 23rd to raves; the first three episodes will air consecutively for three nights starting September 10 at 9pm.
Set five years later, “China Girl” follows Robin Griffin, Elisabeth Moss’s troubled homicide detective (she screams in her sleep), back to her old Sydney police precinct. She’s tough and no-nonsense, eager to prove her expertise against a sea of sexist cops, and saddled with a lanky partner (the hilariously endearing “Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie), who is as sweet and feminine as Robin is bottled up and celibate.
Robin has left her fiancé at the altar and is less interested in connecting with men than the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years ago. New to the series are Campion’s gifted daughter Alice Englert (born the year “The Piano” won three Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay) and Nicole Kidman — the woman Campion has known since Kidman was 14, her star in “Portrait of a Lady,” and now the star of this year’s Cannes.
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Kidman, sporting a curlier version of the long grey wig worn last season by Holly Hunter, plays the anxious and adoptive mother of a teenager who has picked entirely the wrong older man to fall in love with. Exactly how he is connected to sex worker China Girl, who is found inside a trunk off Bondi Beach, is one of many story threads Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee are weaving this season.
The first two episodes expertly set up all manner of storylines to pursue — and look gorgeous, accompanied by a jazzy score. Will Robin pull out of her post-wedding funk? Establish a relationship with her daughter? And find the murderer of China Girl?
I sat down with executive producer Campion, Lee and rising young director Ariel Kleiman, who directed four of the six episodes (produced by See-Saw Films for BBC Two in co-production with SundanceTV in the U.S.). Garth Davis, who followed “Top of the Lake” with Oscar-contender “Lion,” recommended rising short director Kleiman (“Partisan”), who had never directed anyone else’s writing before. Campion was nervous about whether he’d like the scripts. He did. “It was not something I’d ever have come up with myself,” he said.
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While Campion loved writing a rich part for her daughter to play, and “keeping her close, having her to myself,” Kleiman took over the more difficult episodes — including one where Englert gets roughed up in the back of a taxi. “I was the babysitter,” he said. “Looking after Jane’s kids when she couldn’t be there. She gave me the tough ones.” Campion admired her daughter’s work: “So touching, so strong, so real.”
Writing and directing Season 2, which starts off even darker than Season 1, was “daunting,” said Campion, who holds herself and her co-writer Lee to a high standard. They compete over who can write the best lines.
Elisabeth Moss, who also starred in Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or-winner “The Square” at Cannes, continued to surprise Campion this season as the female detective who gets the leftovers, the hard-to-solve cases. “She’s really broken,” said Campion. “She made me cry.” The director sat through all six episodes at Cannes and welcomed audience feedback during the intermissions. She remains astounded at how Moss “can hold emotion. She’s got strength, the pride of the unadmired, the one who’s left out. She can carry that for us. Traditional stars are the ones who’ve never known what it’s like to be left out.”
The filmmakers shot in the real morgue in Sydney, which was supposed to be closed but people kept dying, leaving behind their stench. As she did in Season 1, Griffin fights for justice for a marginal person who nobody cares about. “Robin identifies with China Girl,” said Campion. “She will not let this go: ‘We’re going to find it.'”
As for her ovation at Cannes 2017, Campion shrugs it off. “It’s a tragic reason to be applauded,” she said. “Andrea Arnold and I were talking about it with the director of ‘Toni Erdmann’ [Maren Ade]. We’ve got to do something… get the cream of the industry together.” Unlike Hollywood’s controlling guy patriarchy, said Campion, whenever she works in television, “I feel like I can say whatever the hell I want.”