Top of the Lake is a seven part television series about misogyny and violence, set at the southern tip of New Zealand. It was directed by Jane Campion, director of the Piano, another movie about misogyny and violence in New Zealand that was very well received when it was released. In her return to New Zealand for this show, Campion has moved her setting from the lush fern forests of the North Island to the desolate peaks and wilderness of the far South Island, and has skipped in time from the colonial era to the modern – though looking at the behavior of the protagonists in this movie, it’s hard to find much of a civilizing influence of modernity.
The basic story of Top of the Lake is an apparently straightforward investigation of child abuse. A 12 year old girl called Tui (pictured) is pregnant and a cop from Sydney called Robin is brought in to investigate the case. The story is set in the fictitious town of Laketop, near Queenstown. Robin grew up in this town but moved to Australia to work, and has returned to Laketop temporarily because her mother has cancer, so she’s ideally placed to investigate the crime. Unfortunately, things don’t proceed simply: Tui is the daughter of a singularly malicious and nasty man, Matt Mitcham, who is a Scottish migrant and the dodgiest thug you’ve ever seen (well, at least until you meet some of his associates in episode 5). He is singularly unhelpful in the case, and Tui is also being very unhelpful – it’s not clear if she even understands what has happened to her, and soon after the show starts she disappears. Furthermore, Robin has her own dark history in Laketop, and pretty much every other person you meet is entangled in something dark and horrible: wherever you turn you see a suspect or their conspirator, and it’s really hard to believe that this town is not deeply enmired in misogyny, sexual violence and repression. Through all of this, Robin is trying to find and help Tui, and the rest of the town are taking a singularly colonial-era and feral approach to Tui’s problems, with almost no one seeming to be aware that it’s dangerous for a 12 year old girl to be pregnant, and dangerous for her rapist to be at large.
Campion’s exploration of the setting really helps to give this impression of a town that hasn’t worked out what modernity is, or updated its attitudes towards women accordingly. Queenstown is a famous tourist town and playground of the rich and famous, but we never see that side of the area: as far as we can tell, Laketop is a rundown and wild place in the middle of nowhere, a little cluster of huts hanging off of freezing, windy mountains and staring out at nothing. The children are wild, playing in canoes and on horses, keeping bones in their homes and wandering wild over the hills and forests, and Tui herself is feral to the point of being fey. The adults are also wild, but in a much nastier and ferocious way. Matt Mitcham, his family and associates cast a long shadow over the town, and he is a violent, sinister presence, completely unreformed and often more like a force of nature than a human. His direct children are ill-mannered, stupid thugs; another of his sons lives in a tent by the lake and spent eight years in a Thai prison; Tui is his daughter by a different woman, and there are children in his house who he doesn’t even really seem to know. The people of the town ride horses and hunt, and Mitcham’s associates use severed deer’s heads on poles as an emblem. The police in the town have a very vague understanding of what crime is or what their purpose is as police. The chief of the police, Al – played with incredible subtlety by David Wenham – alternates between being an urbane and intelligent modern policeman and a quietly dangerous, selfish and very sinister figure. The only apparently “normal” people in this show are a group of women from America and Australia who have formed a commune by the side of the lake, but these women are just as touched as the rest of the place: they live in shipping containers on the edge of the lake, they’re all deeply damaged in some way, and their guru GJ is a remote, harsh and judgmental woman who doesn’t appear to have any kind feelings for her charges at all – and these women also don’t seem to have any conception of the importance of protecting Tui or finding out who raped her. All these people are presented against the backdrop of a wild, silent and unforgiving landscape, cold and windy and desolate but stunningly beautiful, that acts as a perfect counterpoise for the wild, strange character of the people we meet.
Just as in The Piano, Campion uses the landscape to stunning effect as a backdrop to the story. It is beautifully filmed and presented, and in our various excursions to the top of the lake and the mountains beyond it we lose all sense that we are in the modern era. Watching the show makes you feel a kind of sympathetic chill as if you were experiencing the wind and rain and cold of the South Island yourself, but it’s impossible not to be amazed by the harsh beauty of the place. In The Piano, the wilderness offered a lush and sensual backdrop to the corrupted sexuality of the main protagonists; in Top of the Lake the chill, serene lake and cold, distant mountains reflect perfectly the sinister secrets of the town and the impenetrable wildness of the town’s main victim, Tui.
The acting in this television series is also exemplary. Robin is played with fine skill by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men, who does a brilliant job of portraying her human vulnerability and professional strength, as well as her bravery in the face of a town that seems determined to destroy her. Her slow unraveling over the course of the story is brilliantly done. David Wenham gives a master class in his potrayal of the chief policeman, Al, whose motives and allegiances are extremely suspicious, and the other major characters – Johnno and Matt Mitcham and his daughter Tui – are all perfectly cast.
The story is fairly simple and well told, without a real twist but with just enough red herrings and dead ends in its development that you aren’t sure you are right about the key points until the very end, and even then a few things are not fully resolved. It’s essentially a story about corruption and the extent to which a few evil men’s influence can completely corrupt a small community, and although it comes to the resolution one would hope for once one knew the facts, it remains deeply disturbing. It’s even more disturbing if anywhere in New Zealand is actually like the place depicted. My main complaint about the plot is that the commune by the lake plays a big role in the show, but is largely irrelevant to the plot and seems like a kind of boutique side story that Campion put in just to please herself. I think this commune should have been given a different, more satisfying role in the plot or should have been dropped, and I can’t work out exactly why it was important. But aside from that, the story is well told and has that feeling of completeness where nothing stood out as wrong or confusing, and the only unresolved parts were unresolved because the characters couldn’t know the answers, not because there were no answers or because of some plot incoherency. Quite a lot happens for just seven episodes, and it’s an impressively tightly coiled story.
I was surprisingly deeply affected by this show. It’s beautiful, the acting is powerful, the story is disturbing and the characters are amazingly engaging. It also tells a story about a side of New Zealand that maybe doesn’t really get shown much internationally in amongst all the Hobbitons and Rivendells that have emanated from there recently. It’s not always easy going, though it’s not openly brutal, and at times it is breathlessly tense, but in an enjoyable rather than an overly terrifying way. This is a good show to watch for anyone who is interested in crime stories, thrillers and mysteries – especially if you’re interested in seeing those stories unfold in a very unique and almost magical setting.