BLOWN CHINA

He­len Razer on Cam­pion’s new Top of the Lake

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Art may be an in­fin­itely re­new­able re­source. Un­hap­pily, screen-fund­ing is not. The gap that will al­ways fa­tally di­vide any mar­ket from the pro­duc­tive human urge upon which it was founded is now feared by screen crit­ics. Many warn we are about to en­ter a slump fol­low­ing

“Peak TV” – a pe­riod of un­com­mon qual­ity which be­gan, it is largely agreed, with The So­pra­nos, and may have crested with Lynch’s re­cent mas­ter­work, Twin Peaks.

The reser­voir of tele­vi­sion-as-art, they say, is all dried up. Things are in ter­mi­nal de­cline.

I had cho­sen to take an op­ti­mistic view and ig­nore all these fears of over­pro­duc­tion. Surely, the ground that gave rise to Break­ing Bad, Clev­er­man, Six Feet Un­der and oth­ers would not be left fal­low but could only serve to stim­u­late a flour­ish­ing of fu­ture tal­ent. Great au­teurs would con­tinue to leave the block­buster yoke of cin­ema for tele­vi­sion, I rea­soned. Great showrun­ners would pre­fer the free­dom of the on-de­mand model to the hum­drum of net­work. Great num­bers of view­ers would be cul­ti­vated by artists who grew up watch­ing Go­dard. This new Golden Age was, surely, never to be tar­nished.

But, darn it, per­haps we might all de­tect a sign of mar­ket col­lapse next Sun­day, Au­gust 20, on Fox­tel’s BBC First. To call Jane Cam­pion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl ham-fisted does dis­ser­vice to the best work of Peppa Pig.

The Palme d’Or win­ner’s sec­ond foray into tele­vi­sion – the first was the Janet Frame biopic An An­gel at My Ta­ble – came in 2013 with the ini­tial Top of the Lake. Any flaws in that ob­du­rately fem­i­nist nar­ra­tive were more than made up for by Cam­pion’s ar­dent, al­most fear­ful re­spect for the look of New Zealand – and her de­ci­sion to ap­point Aus­tralian Adam Arka­paw as di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, lead­ing to an Emmy for his beau­ti­ful trou­ble. The thing ap­peared on screen as it had, I imag­ine, in Cam­pion’s sin­gu­lar imag­i­na­tion: ru­inous and re­deem­ing; vast and se­ques­ter­ing; fer­tile and lethal.

It was also saved by the look of Amer­i­can ac­tor Elis­a­beth Moss, who plays pro­tag­o­nist De­tec­tive Robin Grif­fin in both se­ries. If there were a prize for Face Most Haunted by the Pa­tri­ar­chal Com­plex, she’d have won it in Cam­pion’s small-town tale of de­cep­tion, as she would have as Mad Men’s Peggy and again as Of­fred/June in

The Hand­maid’s Tale. Moss’s An­tipodean ac­cent has been uni­ver­sally con­demned – and not with­out cause: it’s about as faith­ful to its prove­nance as Dick Van Dyke’s cock­ney is in Mary Pop­pins. Still, much can be for­given, and even for­got­ten, as the lens falls on a face whose small­est ges­tic­u­la­tion can fill a frame with such force.

The sto­ry­telling in this first sea­son un­folded vis­ually. There was no char­ac­ter ex­plic­itly mute, such as Holly Hunter’s Ada in Cam­pion’s The Pi­ano, but there were plenty of char­ac­ters who sim­ply re­fused, or were un­able, to speak. De­tec­tive Grif­fin would not talk about her past of bru­tal abuse, nor would the 12-year-old vic­tim, Tui, she at­tempted to save. Grif­fin’s mother, played by Robyn Nevin, would not talk of her fa­tal ill­ness, nor of her daugh­ter’s ge­neal­ogy – which be­came some­thing of a prob­lem when it seemed Grif­fin was boff­ing her bi­o­log­i­cal brother at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. No one would speak of the two shady in­dus­tries that both funded and dev­as­tated the town, and even when the si­lence of Lake­top was filled by sage words, these emerged to us as unau­then­tic.

In a mar­vel­lously self-ref­er­en­tial move, Cam­pion casts Holly Hunter, for­mer wise mute, as a false and talkative or­a­cle. As GJ, a sort of de­mo­ti­va­tional life coach for menopausal women, Hunter is given to apho­ris­tic out­bursts that sound as­tute – “In na­ture there is no death. Just a reshuf­fling of atoms” – but are, in fact, bor­rowed from the “non-thought” of late anti-guru U. G. Kr­ish­na­murti. She charges all in her midlife menagerie 50 bucks a week to hear things they al­ready know.

The largely silent se­ries was hyp­notic. It was also, for its dearth of speech, an elo­quent chal­lenge to our era’s wide­spread be­lief that re­pressed pain can find es­cape through spo­ken ex­pres­sion. Why talk as though one is on the Oprah show when one can con­vey through im­age, or ex­plore through land­scape, the an­ti­dote to pain? For me, the strength of this se­ries was Cam­pion’s un­spo­ken im­pa­tience with speech. Ours is a time, she seemed to be say­ing, of psy­cho­anal­y­sis in re­verse. The more we talk, the less we un­der­stand. Pain shall be re­solved by the quiet de­tec­tive, by silent, vis­ual scru­tiny.

In Top of the Lake: China Girl, how­ever, some­one turned up the vol­ume. They also turned down the con­trast. The chiaroscuro New Zealand is gone and in its place is the city of Syd­ney, shot nei­ther to make the most of its true gaudy colours nor to make it look like no other se­ries on earth. The blue fil­ter of or­di­nary po­lice pro­ce­du­rals is pre­ferred for nearly ev­ery scene, and it’s a great shame to see an ac­tor as good as Moss look as if she’s on the set of The Bill.

Moss is very good. Of course she is. Even when dumped in the spec­u­la­tive medi­ocrity of The Hand­maid’s Tale, she as­cends and of­fers At­wood’s crude, ahis­tor­i­cal sketch of Amer­ica the gift of plau­si­bil­ity. Fresh from her triumph in Big Lit­tle Lies, Ni­cole Kid­man also proves her es­ca­lat­ing artis­tic value. But to ad­mire the work of ac­tors in the mo­ment they are act­ing be­fore you is gen­er­ally a sign that some­thing has gone awry. In this case, it is the rest of the cast, the script, the cin­e­matog­ra­phy and, per­haps, Cam­pion’s new fix­a­tion on as­sert­ing her in­tel­li­gence through di­a­logue rather than vi­sion.

“The re­ally clever peo­ple used to do film. Now, the re­ally clever peo­ple do tele­vi­sion,” Cam­pion told

The Guardian this year. But what the re­ally clever peo­ple rarely do, in any medium, is sub­due their cen­tral strength. This, for Cam­pion, has al­ways been the abil­ity to con­vey an idea, a plot point, a sense of pain through vi­sion: Ada’s legs free­ing them­selves from the sub­merged pi­ano, the de­cay­ing teeth of Kerry Fox’s Frame shown in a smile. Save for a few re­mark­able scenes – Bondi Beach de­picted as a bat­tle­ground, the black hair of the epony­mous China Girl sig­nalling like seaweed in the Tas­man – that strength is not re­spected here.

It is true that artists, es­pe­cially great ones such as Cam­pion, should be ap­plauded for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. But China Girl, with its fey warn­ings about the dan­gers of on­line porn, doesn’t feel like it’s pur­su­ing a new artis­tic di­rec­tion, but fol­low­ing an old pro­pa­gan­dist con­ven­tion. Maxim Gorky had noth­ing but ap­proval from Stalin when he de­clared, “Writ­ers are the mid­wife to so­cial­ism, and the gravedig­ger to cap­i­tal­ism.” He wrote lit­er­a­ture to im­prove the pro­duc­tiv­ity of work­ers and the mood of the gen­eral sec­re­tary. Cam­pion, it seems to me, has writ­ten for the ap­proval of the Fem­i­nist United Front.

Be­ing a lady, I cer­tainly count fem­i­nism among my

hob­bies and crave a time when our col­lec­tive ef­forts will lay the master dis­course to rest. But when our means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing sis­ter­hood, most par­tic­u­larly through art, are de­rived from a cen­tral com­mit­tee, they can be­come as trans­par­ent to fem­i­nists as so­cial­ist re­al­ism did to com­rades. Cer­tainly, fem­i­nist ad­vo­cates for sex work have found Cam­pion’s de­pic­tion of brothel labour di­min­ish­ing. Work­ers op­er­at­ing in Syd­ney, where sex work is le­gal and there­fore safer and less sub­ject to in­dus­trial abuse, are shown as un­usu­ally vul­ner­a­ble to mur­der, misog­y­nis­tic ob­ses­sion and a vi­o­lent Sven­gali pimp named Puss – a man shown, rather in­con­gru­ously, to be read­ing Red Flag at one point, a so­cial­ist pub­li­ca­tion that would take a very dim view of his ex­ploita­tive labour prac­tice.

The fem­i­nism Cam­pion once con­veyed through equiv­o­cal vis­ual deed is now largely of­fered through un­am­bigu­ous di­a­logue. The di­rec­tor–writer’s oeu­vre clearly marks her as one of the “re­ally clever peo­ple” now moved to make TV, but China Girl ap­pears to us as lit­tle more than the moral­is­ing work of some­one who be­lieves art’s func­tion is not to ex­tend its own lan­guage but, in this case, to per­suade us that men do lit­tle more than deaden their dicks and li­bidos to a non­stop hor­ror porn show, per­haps while co­erc­ing their co-work­ers into sex and dab­bling in a lit­tle il­le­gal sur­ro­gacy work.

All of these mat­ters de­serve fear­less in­quiry, artis­tic and other­wise. But surely women have earnt more of what Cam­pion may wish to pro­vide but fails to: namely, sto­ries about women in which they are not cease­lessly posited in re­la­tion to the dam­age done to them, or the val­ori­sa­tion of­fered, by men.

Some crit­ics have writ­ten of their frus­tra­tion at the flat char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of men in this se­ries. As a

CHINA GIRL, WITH ITS FEY WARN­INGS ABOUT THE DAN­GERS OF ON­LINE PORN, DOESN’T FEEL LIKE IT’S PUR­SU­ING A NEW ARTIS­TIC DI­REC­TION, BUT FOL­LOW­ING AN OLD PRO­PA­GAN­DIST CON­VEN­TION.

prag­ma­tist, and a fem­i­nist, I find this easy to for­give. A girl has only so much time to flesh out her cre­ations and if she skimps on the chaps and, in many cases, re­places their back­story with an iras­ci­ble pe­nis, I am not trou­bled. But the spec­tre of men, per cur­rently pop­u­lar fem­i­nism, over­shad­ows the writ­ing here with the ef­fect that women are re­duced to a wan no­bil­ity. Moss’s Grif­fin is re­ally just Mother Mary, but with PTSD and a drink­ing prob­lem.

Were our screens still largely bar­ren of women un­teth­ered to men, I’d give Cam­pion points for try­ing. I would per­haps ex­cuse her the prof­li­gate plot co­in­ci­dences that see our de­tec­tive pro­tag­o­nist moved to in­ves­ti­gate her boss, her neigh­bour and even her bi­o­log­i­cal daugh­ter. Still, I don’t know even then if I could ex­cuse her artis­tic shift away from what she does best. You can’t take a land­scape and shoe­horn it into or­tho­dox dogma. You can’t re­tain your real, panoramic clev­er­ness within

• ac­cept­able frames.

HE­LEN RAZER is a writer and broad­caster.

She is The Satur­day Pa­per’s tele­vi­sion critic and gar­den­ing colum­nist.

Top of the Lake: China Girl stars Ni­cole Kid­man (fac­ing page) and Elis­a­beth Moss (above, with Gwen­do­line Christie).

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