Top of the Lake begins where The Awakening – Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel – ends: with a distraught female character walking into a large body of water and willfully allowing the dark wetness to surround her.
In the novel, the woman was a wife and mother struggling with the restrictions of both roles. Top of the Lake begins with Tui (Jacqueline Joe): silent, 12-years-old and pregnant. When the local police in her small New Zealand town prove largely disinterested in the case, a detective named Robin (Elisabeth Moss), who grew up nearby but has since moved to Australia, returns and makes it her personal crusade to bring Tui’s rapist to justice.
Need I even mention at this point that Top of the Lake was created, written and directed by Jane Campion, who also gave Chopin a watery nod in The Piano? Envisioned as a miniseries, Campion collaborated with filmmakers Garth Davis and Gerard Lee to develop what is, in its most basic structure, a police procedural. Though not fully served by this episodic framework, the project nonetheless stands as one of Campion’s most arresting works. Top of the Lake is an unsettling, boundary-bursting exploration of sexuality and sexual violence – and how the former so easily bleeds into the latter when patriarchal structures go unchallenged.
It’s clear early on that Laketop, the remote town in which most of the action takes place, is run by men. Al (David Wenham), the blithe head of police, is ostensibly in charge, but the man behind the curtain is Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the growling, greasy-haired ringleader of a mountainside compound. Matt is also Tui’s father, and hence Robin’s first suspect.
Top of the Lake is an unsettling, boundary-bursting exploration of sexuality and sexual violence.
Robin isn’t the only new face to Laketop. A mysterious woman who goes by the name of GJ (Holly Hunter) has set up an impromptu camp on one of the more scenic lakefront spots, along with a following of damaged women who drink a lot of tea and gather together for opaque therapy sessions. Along with Robin’s investigation, it’s a full-on assault to the masculine assumptions under which the town had been operating.
I’m afraid I’m making Top of the Lake sound like a feminist screed, when it’s nothing of the sort. GJ and Robin are hardly compatriots; indeed, one of the more intriguing scenes is the one in which GJ dismisses the significance of Robin’s efforts. This is a messy movie, structurally and thematically, one that’s less interested in correcting the abusive patriarchy at its center than worming around in the ugliness such a power structure generates. It’s bracing, deflating, necessary stuff.
Moss is excellent as the one woman willing to stare this horror in the face. Unlike most feminist heroines, she doesn’t do this simply by adopting a male definition of strength. Here and on Mad Men, Moss is able to convey not only the brazenness that it would take to be forceful in a man’s world, but also the vulnerability that such a woman would experience. When Moss’ characters fix her male adversaries with that gray-blue gaze, we see both the determination and the doubt. That’s dramatic.
Top of the Lake was available for viewing on the BBC, Sundance Channel and Netflix in different variations; it played in its entirety at the 2013 Cannes International Film Festival. I watched it in seven episodes, which wasn’t to its advantage, yet I can’t imagine viewing it all at once would help. There’s something off about the pacing and the juxtaposition of scenes that makes this less of a cohesive narrative (or a satisfying mystery) than a collection of arresting moments.
Still, in thematic terms, this is a thrilling return to form for Campion and a reminder of what a unique voice she brings to a cinema that can still, in 2013, be almost as male-dominated as Laketop itself.