Sunday, December 15, 2013

Top of the Lake: A Review

I just marathoned my way through Top of the Lake, Jane Campion's mini-series which premiered at Sundance and is available on Netflix streaming.

Spoilers: It's amazing.

Filmed in New Zealand, it stars Elizabeth Moss, who you might know from Mad Men, and Holly Hunter, among many others.  Both are excellent, as is the young girl, Jacqueline Joe, who plays Tui, the 12 year old whose pregnancy sets the plot in motion.

We're in a small, insular community set in a mountain valley around a frigid (I'm guessing glacial?) lake.  Everyone knows everyone.  Detective Robin Griffin has returned from Australia after a ten year absence to be with her mother while she's dying; but she's a specialist in dealing with crimes against children, and gets called in to deal with Tui.

Tui won't (or can't) say who raped her.  And then Tui vanishes. Tui's father, Matt Mitcham, and brothers are scary, scary guys living in a compound, where something shady is going on.

Meanwhile, out at Paradise, GJ played by Holly Hunter... no, I will not give you spoilers about GJ.  You must meet GJ yourself.  GJ is the best part of the series.

I'll just say this. GJ has taken Paradise away from Matt Mitcham, and no one takes anything from Matt Mitchum, and now GJ has a Utopian space there, a sanctuary, an oracle, for any one who wants to come (which is mostly women).  As the series progresses, GJ and Paradise both become more and more wonderful, in every sense of the word.  In the last episode, GJ nearly destroyed me.

The plot is great -- it is a ripping yarn -- but it is the characters, and the details, that make this work.

Particularly, it is two aspects of characters and details.

(1) The landscape.  In this show, the amazing landscape of New Zealand becomes a character in the show.  The immense mountains are always there; the lake factors constantly in the plot; the weather is always factoring into everyone's decisions.  Windows are open and wind blows through houses.  Even when people are inside, they are always turning toward the outside world, looking toward the lake, opening doors and windows, moving away from the interior life.

(2) The attention given to women and women's lives.  We have plenty of male characters here; but women are the center of the plot.  For the most part, through most of the series, what women think, what women do, propel the action.  (The obvious exception is Matt Mitcham.)  This is not to say that men aren't acting in the series; they must be.  It is just that we don't see their actions, because our focus is on women.  This takes women from the margin, where we usually see them, and moves them to the center.  It's refreshing.

Other details of the series are delightful, too. The female nudity, for instance, is almost all of women over 40, and not at all porny.  (There is one semi-porny scene with Elizabeth Moss, but it includes a fully naked guy too.)  Instead, the women are shot casually, their bodies shown as women's bodies, not as sexual objects.

The scenes where the men are hitting on women in bars are shown exactly as annoying and insulting as they actually are, and the men are shown as creepy as they actually are.  (Not alphas, but assholes.) That's nice.

And despite my philosophical commitment to non-violence as a solution, I really, really like the final episode.  No spoilers, so I won't say why.  But yes.

Highly recommended.


Athena Andreadis said...

Of course, Holly Hunter was the fierce central character of Campion's The Piano (which I discuss here: Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?) and Campion originally wanted Anna Paquin (equally fierce in The Piano, which was her first and one of her best major roles) as Robin.

There is no film made in Aotearoa, from Xena to The Piano to Whale Rider to LotR, in which the landscape is not an integral part of the work.

delagar said...

I meant to mention The Piano in the review! Thanks, Athena!

And Anna Paquin would have made a great Robin.