BODY ON THE BEACH

The sec­ond se­ries of Jane Cam­pion’s Top of the Lake finds Robin Grif­fin far from Par­adise — in Syd­ney, where a corpse at Bondi kicks off another mys­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Top of the Lake: China Girl,

‘Top of the Lake is a crime mys­tery story and the won­der­ful thing about crime mys­ter­ies is that you’re deal­ing with char­ac­ters who are not per­fect them­selves,” says Jane Cam­pion, speak­ing of the se­ries’ sec­ond sea­son, sub­ti­tled China Girl.

“They’re en­ter­ing the mys­tery, the un­known, and they’re try­ing with ev­ery­thing they’ve got to find out what hap­pened. And they al­ways come across or come up against their own lim­i­ta­tions — the things that they haven’t re­ally worked out about them­selves.”

The se­ries be­gan in 2013 as a haunt­ing mys­tery set in a re­mote, in­ces­tu­ous town called Lake­top in south­ern New Zealand. In Cam­pion’s lushly cin­e­matic hands it be­came a wilder­ness par­adise with a very dark side, lend­ing her story a myth­i­cal qual­ity, a kind of noir mys­tic that ex­plored the no­tion of trans­gres­sion.

Elis­a­beth Moss’s de­tec­tive Robin Grif­fin, an ex­pert in child pro­tec­tion, os­ten­si­bly in Queen­stown to visit her dy­ing mother, found her­self at the cen­tre of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a miss­ing school­girl. Grif­fin was soon sucked back into the in­trigues of a com­mu­nity she had hoped to for­get, a mag­net for lives in duress, most of them vi­o­lent losers. She found her­self pit­ted against ma­cho pa­tri­arch Matt Mitcham, com­pellingly played by Peter Mul­lan, and David Wen­ham’s cor­rupt cop Al Parker.

It turned out to be an in­tense psy­cho­log­i­cal crime story — the tale of the preg­nant child who mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­pears set against a camp of crazy women and a red­neck crime fam­ily strug­gling over a piece of land called Par­adise. It was a set­ting seething with anger, re­sent­ment and bru­tal­ity, bal­anced by the ri­otous, sur­real hu­mour of th­ese un­set­tling women with noth­ing left to lose. Its sub­text of tru­cu­lent male dom­i­nance sub­verted by the in­nate wild­ness and un­pre­dictabil­ity of women was en­thralling for some crime TV fans (and es­pe­cially for ad­mir­ers of Cam­pion’s work).

Oth­ers found it pre­ten­tious, dis­liked the comic weird­ness, self-con­sciously arty treat­ment and bib­li­cal sym­bol­ism. And oth­ers were de­terred by the way the se­ries, as it de­vel­oped, seemed to move away from what seemed like a clas­sic generic premise — I was, sadly, one of them — too of­ten side­lined by the plot of the crazy frac­tious mid­dle-aged women seek­ing sal­va­tion un­der the ec­cen­tric su­per­vi­sion of the white-haired, witch­like GJ (Holly Hunter).

None of the crit­i­cism seems to have af­fected Cam­pion who, in the many in­ter­views she’s given, clearly rel­ished, and ob­vi­ously pas­sion­ately still does, the lack of sto­ry­telling re­straints and the longer nar­ra­tive de­vel­op­ment in the TV se­ries, es­pe­cially when pro­duced with­out hav­ing to write for the ac­com­mo­da­tion of com­mer­cials. “The thing with Top of the Lake was that it was a re­ally ex­cit­ing ex­per­i­ment,” she says in the show’s pro­duc­tion notes. “We didn’t know how it would go down; we did what we wanted.”

And that’s what’s she’s done with the se­quel, which is more of a con­tin­u­a­tion than one might have ex­pected, with some of the early scenes a bit con­fus­ing if you missed the first sea­son. Or even if you didn’t: there’s been a lot of top-end crime drama since it went to air four years ago.

Cam­pion says the thought of a sec­ond sea­son was “a bit dev­as­tat­ing to be­gin with” be­cause of the work in­volved: “So, you re­ally need to cre­ate an ap­petite or in some way be deal­ing with ma­te­rial that is fas­ci­nat­ing to you, or re­ally bites into your own life in a sub­stan­tial way.” Us­ing ideas gleaned from her own life and the lives of her col­leagues, she has treated it, she says, like a new book with a dif­fer­ent story but with the same de­tec­tive, fur­ther on in life.

Top of the Lake is pro­duced by See-Saw Films for BBC Two in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sun­danceTV in the US, and BBC First and Fox­tel in Aus­tralia. It’s writ­ten by Cam­pion and long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Gerard Lee, and di­rected by Cam­pion and ex­cit­ing young Mel­bourne di­rec­tor Ariel Kleiman ( Par­ti­san). Ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc- ers in­clude Acad­emy Award winners Emile Sher­man and Iain Can­ning ( The King’s Speech, Shame), as well as Jamie Lau­ren­son, all of SeeSaw films, and it is pro­duced by Philippa Campbell of Es­capade Pic­tures and Libby Sharpe.

It’s a pow­er­ful line-up of cre­ative tal­ent, com­ple­mented by a cast of in­ter­na­tional ac­tors in­clud­ing Ni­cole Kid­man and Game of Thrones’ Gwen­do­line Christie. Well-known lo­cal ac­tors in­clude Ewen Les­lie, Ge­off Morell, Marg Downey, Da­mon Her­ri­man, Susan Prior, He­len Thom­son and Kim Gyn­gell, with Wen­ham ap­par­ently repris­ing his role as Parker.

It’s been four years since the so-called “Queen­stown bust” when Grif­fin shot Parker af­ter it turned out he was the cor­rupt of­fi­cer be­hind a pe­dophile ring. She had her­self been gang-raped at 15, be­com­ing preg­nant and giv­ing up the baby; her real father turned out to be lo­cal drug baron Matt Mitcham. She has re­turned to Syd­ney, ejected from Par­adise, now with an over­whelm­ing de­sire to meet the child she had when she was a teenager.

She’s been out in the wilder­ness for a long time — some say she fell off the earth — but her rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lence pre­cedes her as she joins the Syd­ney po­lice in a train­ing role with re­cruits. The lo­cal cops are as misog­y­nis­tic as the drug run­ners she in­ves­ti­gated in New Zealand, and the locker-room bon­homie is scabrous.

Par­al­lel to re-es­tab­lish­ing Grif­fin’s story is the jour­ney of a suit­case car­ried to a steep cliff face some­where off Bondi Beach by two oc­cu­pants of a dingy brothel. They some­what com­i­cally man­age to tip it over and into the sea. It con­tains the body of an Asian sex worker with long black hair that trails from the case deep in the wa­ter, an im­age of al­most mys­ti­cal beauty.

Grif­fin lives in a dingy room in her brother’s apart­ment, dream­ing of in­can­des­cent ba­bies crawl­ing into her bed­room, then sud­denly dis­ap­pear­ing. She cher­ishes a let­ter, ad­dressed from nearby Lane Cove, from her daugh­ter that has some­how reached her. “Thank you for hav­ing me,” it says. It’s ob­vi­ous that the com­plex­i­ties of mother­hood and the in­tense com­pli­ca­tions of par­ent­ing will be at the cen­tre of the un­fold­ing drama.

Grif­fin is now celi­bate, still swig­ging beer alone, a short-lived mar­riage now some­where in her past. All she wants to do is work, she tells her boss, Adrian But­ler (Clay­ton Ja­cob­son): “I’m good at it, I’ve got my qual­i­ties — I don’t give up.” But her po­si­tion with the cops is a lit­tle com­pro­mised — Parker, it turns out, did not die in the shoot­ing, is now charg­ing her with as­sault in a civil case and wants to meet her as part of a set­tle­ment.

She tracks down her child to the Lane Cove address — a highly en­ti­tled 17-year-old called Mary (Al­ice En­glert) who has been raised by up­per-mid­dle-class lib­eral par­ents, Ju­lia and Pyke, played by Kid­man and Les­lie. Ju­lia is a fiery fem­i­nist who once stud­ied in Eng­land un­der Ger­maine Greer, and now shares her mar­riage with another woman.

Mary’s boyfriend is Puss (David Den­cik), an oleagi­nous older man, a for­mer lit­er­ary pro­fes­sor of du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion, who lives above a brothel — it ap­pears to be the same es­tab­lish­ment where we first saw that suit­case — and teaches the Asian sex work­ers “dirty English” phrases, to the mer­ri­ment of the young girls. (Credulity might be­come a lit­tle strained for some at this point.) There is great con­ster­na­tion in the un­con­ven­tional fam­ily when he asks Mary’s par­ents for her hand in mar­riage, even though he pos­sesses an en­vi­able un­der­stand­ing of Dos­to­evsky.

Another re­lated sto­ry­line in­volves a group of in­se­cure, emo­tion­ally dis­turbed young men whose ob­ses­sion with pornog­ra­phy and broth­els stokes their mas­culin­ity, giv­ing their empty lives some im­me­di­ate fo­cus. One in par­tic­u­lar has an in­ti­mate con­nec­tion to the brothel at the cen­tre of things, and it’s also ap­par­ent that the ex­ploita­tion of Asian sex work­ers is a ma­jor part of Cam­pion’s fo­cus here.

When the body washes up on Bondi Beach, the parts of the story start to in­ter­sect more clearly and the main mys­tery is set. Grif­fin’s grief and despair give way to ur­gency and pur­pose. “Hello dar­ling,” she says to the corpse of China Girl. “Want to tell me what you saw?”

It’s a great open­ing to what will no doubt be a com­pelling drama, even if there are so far no re­ally like­able char­ac­ters, ex­cept for Christie’s ex­tremely tall rookie cop Mi­randa, the butt of male col­leagues’ cruel trans­gen­der gags. Cam­pion’s fem­i­nist con­cerns ap­pear a lit­tle over­stated so early on, and plau­si­bil­ity, once again, will be a con­cern for some. But the grim den­sity of the story is ap­peal­ing and its highly cin­e­matic look, lushly cre­ated by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ger­main McMick­ing, is ter­rific. Moss’s per­for­mance is again mes­meris­ing, even if it’s dif­fi­cult to warm to her — though that may change. 8.30pm. Sun­day, BBC First,

The neww se­ries of Top of the Lake in­volves shady go­ings-on in the sex trade; Ni­cole Kid­man be­low left; Elis­a­beth Moss with Gwen­do­line Christie

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