TV: Top of the Lake (2013)

11:55 AM


Okay so this technically isn't a film but I can't not talk about how amazing Jane Campion's Top of the Lake (2013) is! I figured now is as good a time as any to talk about this show which has been on my mind for weeks now, since Elisabeth Moss just won a Golden Globe for her role as the main character, Robin. I actually found out after I had binge-watched this incredible series that it's intended to be seen in its entirety in one sitting...so I guess my obsessive nature helped me come out on top this time. The mini-series focuses on a few different story lines  all involved in the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year old girl named Tui. The first episode opens on Laketop, New Zealand, a tiny town with dark secrets, as Tui (played by the amazing newcomer Jacqueline Joe) slowly walks into a freezing lake with the intention of killing herself. The set-up in not far from evoking a Twin Peaks feel, minus the talking giants and gateways to purgatory. Elisabeth Moss plays Robin, a former Laketop inhabitant and tough as nails Detective sent to investigate the cause of Tui's pregnancy, and then subsequent disappearance. The main suspect in this crime-mystery is Matt Mitchum, Tui's father, a gruff, unapologetic nasty piece of work. Acting as a catalytic layer underneath all of this is the tension between Matt Mitchum and GJ, a mysterious guru of sorts who purchases Paradise, a piece of Matt's land, unbeknownst to him.  GJ, played by Campion favourite Holly Hunter, sets up empty shipping containers on the lot for her group of followers - women in need of isolation from men...for a variety of reasons. 


Holly Hunter as GJ

Other than Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Prime Suspect (1991), I'm finding it difficult to come up with other crime dramas where the main character or voice of the story is a woman, which is maybe why Top of the Lake feels so original. It's crazy to think that going in the direction of a female-centric work with female leads is a bold move, but it kind of is isn't it? Strong female leads in film or television who are existing in patriarchal or male-dominated environments are just harder to come by. This isn't applicable to everyone, but I do feel as though people tend to shy away from the kinds of stories that might be labelled as 'feminist', as if it were a dirty word. Top of the Lake isn't just a feminist work though, it's an awesome crime-drama AND it just so happens to paint a vivid, hardly exaggerated patriarchy that women everywhere are subject to every single day, be it in the obvious or subtle ways. What I appreciate most about Top of the Lake, (aside from the general badassery, mindfucks around each corner and hot New Zealander's), is the different generations of women who's stories get a chance to be told. The surface premise of the show is one of crime-drama/mystery, but at its core, Top of the Lake is a deeply feminist work and I think one that will be a wealth of knowledge to draw on in coming years. 


Elisabeth Moss as Robin


Tui is the focus of Top of the Lake but she's absent for the better part of the series, with Robin taking centre stage, her life consumed by finding answers to Tui's pregnancy/suspect rape, and her disappearance. Aside from just doing her job, Robin in personally deeply affected by Tui's story, having been raped and impregnated as a teenager in her hometown of Laketop, same as Tui. Despite the town's dissuasions at uncovering the truth about Tui, and trying to convince Robin that Tui is dead after her initial disappearance, Robin breaks down the patriarchal barriers that are trying to hold her back in this backwards town. We know right away that Robin is not going to be respected despite her knowledge or expertise. Everything about Robin is reduced to the fact that she's a woman and that she's a lesser being to the male officers or the men in the town. This is why I really like the (mostly) positive relationship between Robin and Johnno, her one-time prom date turned kind-of boyfriend. You'd think that a show focusing on rape and sexual violence wouldn't show any kind of graphic sexual content but it's wonderful that Jane Campion shows the positivity of Robin and Johnno's consensual relationship, and more importantly depicts the former victim, Robin as the one in control. I was a little skeptical initially about casting Elisabeth Moss, especially in those first few moments when she falters with the accent, coming out more English than Kiwi, but she ended up being such an outstanding lead! She completely deserves the Golden Globe she won for her role. 

Holly Hunter's character, GJ is also a part of this world where women are constantly sexualized, and she really is a thing of beauty because she's the only female in the show who seems to pose any kind of threat to Matt Mitchum and his boys. When they first meet GJ, the Mitchum men joke about how they don't know whether GJ is a woman or a man. What they're really saying however is that they can't place GJ into some simple package, or a definition of what a woman should be as dictated by men. To me, GJ is a neutral in the show, only giving opinions when prompted and she speaks frankly about realities regardless of age of experience. In addition to GJ, all the women living at the Paradise sanctuary are crippled and isolated by sexual shame and even by ideas of maternal failure. All the while, the Mitchum men can swagger about on their land and even forcibly enter Paradise by literally ramming the gate in. That scene in particular - where Matt brings down the gate - is so fundamentally sickening considering the rape culture that's so predominant in the show. It's such a glaring metaphor and so perfectly upsetting. 





Top of the Lake is one of those gems you'll see out of the corner of your eye on Netflix, but never click on, though you absolutely should. Aside from having an incredible cast including Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter under the godly direction of Jane Campion, this is just such a beautiful, well-constructed series. Too often, crime stories like this get resolved so neatly to fit into a certain time frame and I think that the freedom Jane Campion had with this show allowed for such wonderful realness - such as going through the paces of dead ends and exasperation. Overall, Top of the Lake is really affecting in terms of stunning cinematography and the emotional journeys of its characters. I'm in a bit of honeymoon period with the show and because of that I'll definitely be watching it again, so who knows what flaws I might pick up on the second time, but for now, I'm in love with this series. 


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