From the eerie piano chords that accompany the hauntingly dream-like visuals of the opening credits, the tone for Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed new thriller is set. The pace is relentless, the characters many and the themes varied, giving us a lot to sink our teeth in to over the next 7 weeks.
The opening is effectively detached, giving nothing away as we see a young girl leave her home, cycling along the countryside and through the woods until she comes to the titular location. Once there she silently walks in to the clearly freezing lake until the water has reached her shoulders. Eventually she’s pulled out by a teacher who spots her, carting her off to school and the medical room where we discover this young girl is 12-year-old Tui and that she’s pregnant. Campion’s story will centre on the investigation in to Tui’s disappearance; that Tui doesn’t actually disappear until the end of the episode shows the writer’s willingness to draw her characters out gradually, a bold and successful move that allows Top of the Lake to become immediately involving.
Tui’s father is local drug lord Matt Mitcham who, along with his sons/henchmen Luke & Mark, is furious to discover that a piece of local land named Paradise has been sold from right under his nose to a group of women led by self-thought-of prophet GJ. In response, the trio rough up estate agent Bob Pratt, eventually throwing him off a boat where he drowns instantly. Whether Matt meant for Bob to die or not remains to be seen, but it doesn’t seem to bother Mitcham either way, barely giving Pratt’s fate a second thought. As Matt, Peter Mullan is a terrifying screen presence (despite the wobbly accent). Mitcham’s reaction to the news of his daughter’s pregnancy sends shivers down the spine, as does his justification of it; “she’s a slut, like her dad was a slut” he barks, with a ferocity you’d expect to come from one of the caged dogs he keeps in his yard.
Meanwhile, Tui’s case is handed to Detective Robin Griffin, called from looking after her terminally ill mother, who specializes in young abuse victims. Played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, Griffin is Top of the Lakes central protagonist. Much of Campion’s previous work has focused on strong females who have suffered at the hand of aggressive male figures and Griffin is no different. She’s a steely detective, determined to do what’s right no matter who she must deal with. However, a conversation with other Mitcham brother Johnno suggests a dark moment in Robin’s past that involved her and a group of men; no wonder she was apprehensive about returning to the town she grew up in. Moss is a pro and based on this first episode, she holds the narrative together brilliantly; subtly she injects Griffin with a child-like vulnerability that is likely to pay dividends as Robin’s past is explored in further episodes but for now can help highlight the clear sexual divisions in New Zealand society.
This divide is one of Campion’s strongest themes thus far but it is not the only one highlighted in this packed opening episode. The idea of privacy and isolation is also emphasized with Robin’s distanced relationship with both her family and the police force and with GJ’s isolated commune on the Paradise land. It’s this commune that also provides the show with much of its surprising comedy, with the Chimpanzee story that is relayed to Matt and his sons proving to be this week’s comic highpoint.
If there were something wrong with Top of the Lake it would have to be the marketing, which is likely to give many the wrong impression. Despite its core narrative Top of the Lake is not a thriller but a drama, carefully drawn out with multiple themes and characters interwoven. It gives a powerful first impression and like all shows that do so, leaves you craving more.