REVIEW: Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake is an original miniseries that aired on the Sundance Channel a couple of months ago and is now available for streaming on Netflix. It was created, co-written and directed by Jane Campion, who of course is known for some great movies, such as The Piano and Bright Star, two of my favorites. Her films are always about repressed or lonely, yet intelligent women who experience sexual or spiritual awakenings. This adresses that theme yet again, along with many others, in a 7-part series that explores the effects of a misogynistic culture in a male-dominant mountainside town in New Zealand. It stars Elisabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin, a troubled and emotionally scarred woman who returns to her hometown of Laketop, and while there is called to work on a case involving the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year old named Tui. There are a myriad of suspects to be found in the case, including virtually all the men in Tui's family, who are abusive and reckless (Peter Mullan plays her villainous father in an electric performance), and while at work on the case, Robin's own tragic past as a victim of abuse is revealed piece by piece, as she struggles to re-connect to her childhood friends and family.

The series is an atmospheric, dark, and existential mystery, and like Rectify, another Sundance series, the lingering pace may not be for everyone and requires patience. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say if you thought Rectify was boring than this one is definitely not for you. But once again, I found this story to be rich, absorbing, thoughtful and even harrowing at times- despite its emphasis on mood and atmosphere, the show does not forget its central mystery, nor the personal ones that it sets up in later episodes. The series was shot on location New Zealand, and the cinematography is breathtaking, maybe reason enough to watch it. One of the most effective setups is to lay the backdrop of a truly beautiful, natural wilderness and expose the ugliness under the surface, which grows more violent and disturbing with each layer that is pulled off.

As for the acting, Elisabeth Moss is fantastic, and this is one of the few times where the wandering accent on an American actor was actually a non-issue for me. Maybe it helps that they gave her the backstory of having been a person originally from New Zealand, but spent at least a decade in Australia, so she has some excuse for not sounding EXACTLY like everyone else (or maybe as an American, i'm just more forgiving regarding the particular cadences of Australian/New Zealand accents). Either way, she conveys a subtle yet strong impression of a woman who's been traumatized and is deeply damaged, yet remains personally driven to resolve this mystery. I'v already mentioned Peter Mullan as the father, and the other standout is Holly Hunter as the leader of a woman's group that has set up camp in the town, and doles out what could be labeled wisdom or judgment or otherworldly advice, for all we know. It's definitely the most eccentric and mysterious role, you might even laugh when you see what she's doing here, but she does hold your attention.

Overall, I loved Top of the Lake, and hopefully it gathers up the number of Emmy nominations it deserves next month. There may be some quibbles with the ending though- so be prepared for that. I've said it wraps everything up, and it does more or less; the things that do remain unanswered can either be a source of frustration or the intent of Jane Campion to leave things open ended as a way of symbolizing big picture uncertainty. For me, it was little bit of both- and maybe that's not a bad thing.

Grade: A-

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