In many ways, crime drama mini-series Top of the Lake is a quintessential indie mood piece. Filmed in the mountains of New Zealand, every frame is gorgeous. From the eerie symbolism of the title’s vast, void-like lake, to our fearless heroine’s blood-splattered face in the final scenes, Top of the Lake is visually stunning. The fact that it’s also a well-written and finely-detailed thriller sets it apart from the usual all-style-no-substance indie fare.
I should probably know co-writer/co-director Jane Campion from other things (1993’s Oscar-winning The Piano for instance), but actually I’m only familiar with the underrated In the Cut (2003). Campion traverses similar themes of sex and death in Top of the Lake when Sydney cop Robin returns to her childhood home to see her cancer-stricken mother, only to find herself caught up in the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. If the summary sounds a little hokey, don’t let it put you off: there are enough witty, original touches to Lake that you’ll forget the central storyline is standard crime fiction fare.
Indeed, it’s the charming, secondary touches that really make Lake a pleasure. To name but a few, there’s the commune of neurotic women looking for paradise and finding only more shit; the selectively-mute teenage boy who perhaps has good reason to be jaded; and Robin’s old love interest, who is haunted by a decade in an Asian jail on drugs charges. Sometimes these details weigh the story down unnecessarily – at 6 hours long, the mini-series is a mite too long – but they also make the setting and its characters feel fully fleshed-out in a way that’s rare, even in good TV drama.
Elisabeth Moss earned one of her two 2013 Emmy noms here (the other one being for Mad Men) and it’s well-deserved. She carries the narrative ably, teasing out a range of very-believable emotions from a character who is by turns prickly, angry, heartbroken and vulnerable. The supporting actors (and prime suspects), including Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright and David Wenham, also deftly inhabit the shades of grey called for by the narrative.
Though the series’ rushed denouement means that we don’t get to know very much about our characters’ lives after the mystery is resolved, the fact that I care – the fact that I want to know if Robin and Johnno lived happily ever after; if GJ really did work magic on her motley band of women – means the series succeeded in getting inside of my mind. Which is all I ever really want from a good story.