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
‘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