Top Of The Lake episode one review: Paradise Sold

The BBC welcomes six-part drama Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s bleak, arty New Zealand-set crime mystery feat. Elisabeth Moss...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Paradise Sold

Pitting archetypes of femininity and masculinity against each other is a specialty of Jane Campion’s. In 1993’s The Piano, mute, corseted, insulated Ada is seduced by tattooed, muscular, carnal Baines. In 2003’s In the Cut, cultured English professor Frannie is titillated by sexually aggressive, potentially murderous, macho detective Malloy. Top of the Lake’s stark gender oppositions then, in which capable Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) and a caricatured wimmins’ retreat have to contest with a backwater town where male violence and misogyny are as unmovable as the mountains that surround it, are the continuation of a theme.

This time though, there’s little chance of Moss’ character falling for the charms of Peter Mullan’s horribly magnetic Matt Mitcham, a controlling alpha male whom episode one suggests may be responsible for the pregnancy of his twelve-year-old daughter, Tui. 

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We first meet Tui in a scene that could have been bucolic were it not for the pallid tones, drifting mist and uneasy silence. Presented differently, a schoolgirl riding her bike past sheep and horses might have ushered us into a cosy countryside drama, but Top of the Lake is nothing of the sort. It’s an arty post-watershed crime mystery with a taste for scriptural imagery. Tui is no symbol of childish glee, but an isolated figure dwarfed by disinterested nature.

Disinterested sums up the reaction of many to Tui’s condition, from that of the Police Sergeant to those of her father and brothers. Lake Top is the kind of town through which an espresso machine sends ripples, but the rape of a twelve-year-old is shrugged off. It’s somewhere the law looks the other way, especially where Matt Mitcham is concerned. The episode one sub-plot involving the drowning of hapless estate agent Bob Platt (he sold Paradise, put up a parking lot) establishes the Mitchams’ immunity to both punishment and conscience.

Like Animal Kingdom’s Cody family, the Mitcham men are a pack, seen nowhere better than Luke and Mark’s predatory invasion of Bob Platt’s caravan; one in through the window, the other through the door. They’re jackals, so stymied by their homophobic, masculine self-image they’d sooner watch a man die than be seen giving him mouth-to-mouth. Unlike the Codys though, the Mitchams have no matriarchal leader. Tui’s mother doesn’t live with them, there’s no sign of the boys’ mother, and the only other woman in their life is a nameless, almost silent young woman with a black eye and a baby of undeclared parentage (the inference is it’s Matt’s) on her hip. Their heavily CCTV-monitored compound is home to caged dogs, unreconstructed machismo, and secrets.

It’s the secrets Elisabeth Moss’ character is there to uncover. Moss (Mad Men, The West Wing) is excellent in the role of Robin, who, like every other woman detective on TV, is tough, emotionally distant, and has complex relationships with her family and fiancé. Robin also has trauma in her past, alluded to in episode one by the sole sympathetic Mitcham son, Johnno (making them a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, and a John). She was attacked, we assume, as a teenager by a group of local men; it’s the origin story of her police career as a sexual assault specialist. What are the odds too, that her Dad’s lake death will turn out to have some intrigue behind it?

Some gentle Gene Hunt-ish comedy is to be had from Robin’s introduction to the Lake Top police. She arrives to barely disguised groans and eye-rolls, and immediately upbraids her colleagues for displaying insensitivity to young Tui during questioning, before turning Nicholas Angel and scolding them for drinking on duty in the man-pit local bar.

Is something more sinister than blokey ignorance going on with the men at the station though? Is there any significance to the presence of a mounted stag’s head behind the Sergeant’s desk, the same symbol that sinks ominously to the lake floor along with a picture of Tui and a baby’s skeleton in the painterly opening credits? “We’ve had a bit of experience with this young girl” says Sergeant Parker, before confirming the pre-existing relationship with his jokey, “Shall I drive, or do you want to? Oh wait, you drove last time”.

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“Who was the man who did this to you?” Det. Griffin asked pregnant Tui in episode one. “No-one” came the written reply. Was that an evasion, or a riddle-answer? If no one man did it, perhaps more than one was involved.

More low-key humour comes from the women’s commune, temporary home to a collection of lost souls seeking spiritual nourishment from GJ (a brilliantly eccentric Holly Hunter) the forthright leader whose words they hang upon (“Is it a man or a woman?” ask the thrown Mitcham boys). Top of the Lake gently ribs the commune women, and so far, their jarring appearance on the landscape is as incongruous as their role in the rest of the story. It’s as if Robin, Tui, and Matt are from one drama, and the containers are from another.

The interaction of the disparate worlds – one humming with traditional masculinity, the other with new-age femininity – is evidently a source of interest to Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee, but whether the audience is similarly tickled by it remains to be seen. Like Tui’s frontierswoman horse-back arrival at the camp though, the containers are different kind of cliché to the rest on display, and as such, are diverting. In the often-hackneyed detective genre, any deviation from the over-familiar interrogation rooms and rain-beaten urban street-settings is welcome as far as I’m concerned.

Campion’s arty treatment of the erotic thriller genre wasn’t entirely successful in In the Cut. Will this new venture cohere any better? Intermittently beautiful, well-acted, and with an elliptical, clever script that hasn’t yet given too much away, I’d say the early signs are very, very good.

Top of the Lake continues next Saturday the 20th of July on BBC Two.

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