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‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’ Review: The Highlight of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival Might Be a TV Show

Is it a movie? Is it a TV show? Whatever you call it, Jane Campion's latest is as beautiful and soul-stirring as anything you’ll see this year.

Elisabeth Moss Top of the Lake

“Top of the Lake: China Girl”

Moss, brilliant at using Robin’s flinty exterior to hide her open wounds, hasn’t had such compellingly volatile chemistry with a co-star since her scenes with Jon Hamm in “Mad Men.” She and Christie are sensational together, and Campion uses their characters’ uneasy partnership to explore the fraught grey zone between the professional and private lives of women, and to test the solidarity that is often required to help them bridge that gap when the world would rather they stick to one side or the other.

Almost as exciting is the tension between Robin and Mary, whose budding relationship leads “China Girl” to grapple with some very thorny questions about nature vs. nurture. Their first meeting is an absolute corker of a scene, the young detective and her teenage daughter — the product of a brutal gang rape — reuniting for a quick milkshake in a tense, off-kilter encounter. No Hallmark niceties are exchanged. On the contrary, the emotions are so intricate and impossible to untangle that the conversation between them feels like as though it’s being spoken in a code that neither of its participants fully understand. Robin’s rekindled maternalism (and the fight for dominance that it sets up with Nicole Kidman’s character for dominance) is one of the show’s most rewarding strands, even while Mary remains a frustratingly elusive character until the incredible final episode rolls around and manages to diagnose her nature in a single, shattering line of dialogue.

The fact that Robin’s case so perfectly dovetails with her daughter’s life is a massive coincidence that “China Girl” takes for granted, but it’s so fundamental to these episodes that viewers are forced to make peace with it very early in the process. More than that, such improbable overlap only helps to reaffirm Campion’s primary obsession — it’s the most Greek and grandiose of the many ways in which the people in this show find that their narratives are perpendicular to those of their bodies. Every character has two legacies, physical and emotional, and “China Girl” finds enormous amounts of pain in the places where those legacies diverge.

Gwendoline Christie Elisabeth Moss Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake: China Girl”

In that regard, parenthood is an obvious wellspring of hurt in that regard, and surrogacy (an increasingly crucial topic in these episodes) adds even greater dimension to those feelings. In these modern times — defined by the reach of diasporas, the rifts of socioeconomic stratification, and the terminal velocity of new technology — women’s bodies are telling stories that they’ve never told before. The flesh may be the same, but the process has evolved. Among other things, this bold new world of the body is a perversely perfect metaphor for a television show that was conceived by a Palme d’Or-winner and unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival. “China Girl” is pregnant with so many of the emotions that have always been so vital to Campion’s cinema, but here they’re born in an “unnatural” new way that makes it tempting to question their validity.

READ MORE: Cannes: With ‘The Piano,’ Jane Campion Explored the Same Feminist Vision That Will Drive ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’And “China Girl,” which is beautifully cinematic from start to finish and features a number of artful compositions that linger in the mind long after it’s over, does feel like a TV show in some respects. Essentially written as a six-hour film, the series’ one-hour episodes have nevertheless been shaped into clean, one-hour blocks of storytelling, complete with their own beginnings and middles and ends. More tellingly, much of the action is captured in the sort of hyper-economical medium shots that make it possible to shoot such a Herculean project on a reasonable budget, though Campion’s idea of a ruthlessly efficient medium shot is a hell of a lot more daring and dreamlike than anything you’ll ever see on network television.

Still, while the distinction may be ultimately irrelevant, “China Girl” is easier to classify than its predecessor because its metropolitan setting is far more endemic to the crime genre than were the majestic New Zealand landscapes of the original series (though these new episodes occasionally zip back over to Laketop for some very satisfying closure on season one).

“Top of the Lake: China Girl”

SundanceTV

But whatever you call it, and however you see it, “China Girl” is an even more nuanced, more primal, and more entertaining beast than the first season (or just about anything else that’s ever aired on television). It’s an overwhelmingly ambitious and unforgettably thoughtful piece of fiction that’s told with the lightest of touches — you won’t believe how fast the whole thing zips by, or the dark laughs it inspires along the way — and brought to life by a cast that lacks a single weak link. Yes, that means Nicole Kidman is excellent in this too, though that might go without saying at this point; playing an increasingly territorial mother whose curly gray hair is as frazzled and free as she wants to be, Kidman delivers another stunner of a supporting performance, while also folding herself into the world of the show so organically that her stature never disrupts the flow.

In fact, nothing does. Saving its best and most satisfying episode for last, this is such an astonishing miniseries in large part because of how well it pays off its pathos; by the end, even the most outlandish of subplots are resolved with a profoundly moving emotional flourish. Call it television, call it a six-hour movie, call it “the future,” it doesn’t matter. Whatever the hell you call it, “Top of the Lake: China Girl” is as beautiful and soul-stirring as anything you’ll see on any kind of screen this year.

Grade: A

“Top of the Lake: China Girl” premiered as a Special Screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It will air on SundanceTV in September.

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