A small-town mystery

Kiwi director Jane Campion’s new mini-series Top of the Lake

Time In

Once upon a time, TV was where movie careers went to die. Not so any more: in our era of primo prime time, a tenure on the tube looks like a savvy professional move. It certainly did wonders for Alec Baldwin.

For a real sign that the stigma of the small screen is a thing of the past, look at some of the masters who have directed for TV these past few years. Martin Scorsese helmed the debut episode of Boardwalk Empire, while The Social Network’s David Fincher lent his formal prowess – and Hollywood-honcho pedigree – to the first two hours of House of Cards.

Those gigs were toe-in-the-water forays into the medium. With Top of the Lake, Jane Campion (The Piano) takes a headlong plunge. Shot for Australian TV, this moody, missing-girl procedural airs in seven instalments. Though Campion split directing duties with director Garth Davis, her fiercely feminine sensibilities are unmistakable.

Working from a script she penned with Gerard Lee – who co-wrote her first feature, 1989’s Sweetie – Campion bends a familiar whodunit template into one of her lyrical bouts of gender warfare. Back home in remote New Zealand to care for her ailing mother, big-city detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) gets pulled into the case of a pregnant 12-year-old found wading through icy water. The girl quickly disappears, leaving local authorities to uncover both her whereabouts and the identity of the father – parallel mysteries that open up old wounds for our protagonist.

Because of its long-arc focus on a single crime investigated by a troubled female detective, Top of the Lake has earned not-unfair comparisons to The Killing. Of course, both shows are really just dead-serious riffs on TV’s ultimate game of clues, Twin Peaks. You’ll find little of David Lynch’s surreal humour in this ash-gray landscape, but Lake spins a similarly tangled web of grudges, small-town secrets and hidden passions. As in Peaks, the supporting cast of townsfolk/suspects is superb. Peter Mullan, as the missing girl’s terrifying criminal father, turns the show’s most obvious red herring into a faintly sympathetic monster.

But it’s Moss, at once vulnerable and ferocious, who provides the series with its dramatic heft. Deflecting institutional sexism is her full-time job on Mad Men, yet that cross to bear is the only real similarity between Peggy Olson and this damaged, determined law-woman. She’s a quintessential Campion heroine – navigating an alternately menacing and dreamlike world, pushing back against the hostility and condescension of predatory men. The director, filming in her native New Zealand for the first time since The Piano (1993), has applied her big-screen vision to a small-screen canvas. Auteurs looking to make the leap: this is how you do it.
Dhs11 per episode. Download at www.itunes.apple.com.

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