“You know, you were my first kiss. Was I yours?”
A young boy on a bus—this is the indelible mark left by the first three episodes of Jane Campion and Gerard Lee‘s miniseries Top of the Lake and it sticks less than five minutes in. Anonymous throughout these three hours of crime drama, this boy is the only one who seems to care about twelve-year old Tui (Jacqueline Joe) after she walks into their small New Zealand town’s cursed lake. His text “R U OK” goes answered as she is whisked away by the police for an ultrasound to confirm what the school nurse had already guessed. Is he the father of her unborn child? The blue hoodied cameraman behind footage of the soon disappeared girl? Or perhaps just one more red herring on visiting detective Robin Griffin’s (Elisabeth Moss) trail towards catharsis?
Part 1 is the aforementioned Kiwi auteur’s first work since her criminally underrated Bright Star in 2009 and it’s an intriguing project to say the least. A six-part miniseries airing on the Sundance Channel in the states and BBC Two in Britain, one cannot help drawing striking comparisons to the television program “The Killing”. Itself a remake of the Danish “Forbrydelsen” which in turn is a darker, more serious sibling to “Twin Peaks”, I would be surprised if Campion or Lee hadn’t at least seen the show so it would linger in the recesses of their minds. As methodically deliberate in pacing and similarly mysterious in its use of an indigenous population’s tight-lipped culture, those lacking the patience for Sarah Linden’s Seattle hunt will probably feel the same here. Thankfully, I’m a glutton for slow burn wild goose chases.
Largely serving as set-up to what will hopefully be a rousing finish, Parts 1-3 introduce a large menagerie of characters yet to prove completely transparent. Between the missing girl’s father Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) and his two miscreant sons masquerading as judge, jury, and executioner on land they claim is theirs by birthright being mixed up in nefarious deeds never quite exonerating them from being top suspects to policeman-in-charge Al Parker’s (David Wenham) apparent compliance in a cover-up that will hopefully close the case and send Robin back to the mainland, not one person met on this island can be trusted. Pair these shifty residents swimming in ulterior motives with a band of scorned women on retreat under eccentric “guru” GJ (Holly Hunter) and you have your work cut out trying to discern good from bad, important from irrelevant.
It’s Tui’s vanishing act that puts everyone on edge, but not necessarily for the reasons you would assume. While Robin is keen to help the girl by bringing her—at the very least—statutory rapist to justice, the rest of the town seems more preoccupied with what she might stumble onto in the process. There’s illegal drug manufacturing, a convicted Austrian pedophile, and a foreboding lake whose unnatural rising and lowering tide provides the perfect cover for any “accidental” deaths that may occur. The Mitchams run wild putting fear into the town’s people, the police are portrayed as happy to leave well enough alone if they can, and silence rules the day when every citizen has his own secret to keep. This is why the trope of an outsider peering in with a fresh, unbiased eye works so well.
The twist here, however, is that Robin isn’t fully out of her depth. Not only did she grow up in this very town—her ailing mother’s present residency the reason she was nearby when Tui was found pregnant—but the parallels to the case and her own youth soon come into focus with tragic overlap. There is no one better suited to keep this case open by proving supposed endings are mere misdirection than she, even though the “innocent” attempts to dredge up distant memories that are truly malicious attacks look to derail any headway she makes. Robin Griffin has been brought back to this place of childhood nightmare for a reason and it’s only through her strength to survive the pain of the past that she has any hope of finding the truth.
Shot in a gorgeous bit of New Zealand landscape with mountains in the background and breathtaking coastal views earning their fictitious name “Paradise”, Top of the Lake transports us into this foreign world and encompasses us in its mystery. It’s a similar technique used in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, isolating our protagonist in a remote area void of extraneous information to taint what the writers have crafted. Many of the more bizarre characters have yet to come into their own—Hunter’s esoteric mumblings and her coven’s sexual promiscuity are definitely setting the stage for something big nonetheless—and yet their very inclusion piques can’t help but hold our attention. Things definitely grow darker as each minute progresses while our desire for answers only increases as Robin begins to unravel.
I’ll forgive the blatant use of a suspect’s salacious taboo unbelievably swaying our heroine into not trusting her gut for now, but the second half better not fall prey to the same easy misdirection. Moss plays Robin with a great sense of purpose, angst-ridden by the frustrations of feelings her return unburies and completely devoted to making sure Tui gets the help she never did. It will be interesting to see where her rekindled romance with Mitcham’s kinder son Johnno (Thomas M. Wright) goes and whether his calmer demeanor from his kin hides more lies to risk devastating her beyond repair. The unpredictability of Mullan’s Matt, however, is the real captivating element. A vicious, violent, and remorseless human being, quieter moments of love for his deceased mother and lost child make him impossible to label.
If I learned anything from “The Killing” and other crime dramas, the answers are most likely much bigger than some slam dunk rape/murder case with a suspect hiding in plain sight. No, a conspiracy is probably behind the scenes of the morale-shaking disappearance and those who believe they have nothing to do with what’s happened more than likely played some distant yet no less incriminating part. I trust Campion and company to resolve it all intelligently and with adrenaline pumping suspense either way—I just hope they have something completely out-of-left-field hidden up their sleeves to do so.