In 2013, the Sundance Channel released a seven part miniseries entitled Top of the Lake starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. The series was the latest venture from writer/director Jane Campion, who is best known for her Oscar-winning work with the 1993 film, The Piano. The series was a success with critics, giving itself enough clout to be nominated for a handful of Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe awards, yet the series wasn’t at the forefront of television viewers’ lists of appreciation. Poor marketing was part of the reason as to why audiences were left unaware of this series, with the majority of the marketing being relegated to the Sundance Channel; a channel that most television viewers either do not possess or largely ignore.
Top of the Lake is a miniseries that uses a seemingly small event to catapult a series of situations to the forefront that both challenge the future, but also reawaken buried truths from the past. The narrative begins when a 12-year-old girl named Tui is found in the middle of a lake about to commit suicide. When it is revealed that Tui is pregnant, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is requested to assist in the case. Griffin only has one conversation with Tui, who refuses to identify who is the father of the baby, before she inexplicably disappears. This ignites an investigation that may or may not involve Matt Mitcham, Tui’s father (Peter Mullan), who runs a illegal drug ring, and the nearby, newly-established women’s retreat run by the eccentric GJ (Holly Hunter). In the midst of trying to locate Tui and uncover the truth about her pregnancy, Griffin also unearths buried truths about her own past when she rekindles a past romance and endures bureaucracy within the police department led by Al Parker (David Wenham), who is attracted to her. Yet despite all this, Top of the Lake is more about the community and the narrative outlines the inner mechanisms of how this community functions. The events that result because of Tui represent a community that was already at the brink of collapse, to which this event was the proverbial avalanche that sweeps the community’s secrets into the open for all to bear witness to.
It cannot be denied that Top of the Lake is an artistic series, one that showcases and utilizes the landscape of New Zealand. It is the very environment of New Zealand that is the foundational drop of character development within the narrative of Top of the Lake. This is a concept and theme Jane Campion has frequently explored with her work, especially with her 1993 film, The Piano, which was entirely about displacement and the desire to reclaim one’s nationality. Campion’s work suggests that the themes of displacement and being a product of one’s own environment are both timeless and does not limit itself to a specific region of geography. These themes are both dependent upon the establishment of setting, and evoking the notion of isolation within that setting, which Campion has always been careful to construct and use as the narrative force that pushes her plotlines forward. This is not an achievement limited solely to Campion, yet she is one of the most prevalent filmmakers regarding New Zealand setting and the utilization of its landscape.
However the real beauty with Top of the Lake falls in the frequent ambiguity of the plotline and its characters. The series doesn’t aim to provide revelations or expose hidden truths, but rather leaves it up to the viewers to decide the veracity of claims the series presents to the viewer. The series does take the time to provide glimpses into the lives of specific characters, yet the majority of the series is placed within the central role of Robin Griffin, to which the scope of her understanding of events, thereby the viewers’, is limited to her vantage. There is a certain level of deduction the viewer must make when watching the series, which indicates a level of respect towards the viewer by not spelling out the course-of-events and the moral lessons that can be extracted from the narrative. Since this is an intelligently made series, it doesn’t diminish its structure for the sake of providing an easy outcome. Top of the Lake represents a difficult community of life and it responds appropriately to that notion.
One major achievement of Top of the Lake is portraying the complexity of the human spirit. The characters within the set community of this series do not give over to the conventional Hollywood character-types to which they evolve and that progression provides them with new insights on life. In many regards, the characters within the narrative do not change at all. They do not find profound revelations that skew their persona or actions. Yet it is the brilliance of the Top of the Lake miniseries that these characters, despite not evolving, are not reduced to being stock or static characters. Instead, the writing explores the motivational makeup of each of the characters and it is the viewer who experiences a form of evolution with the characters by being privy to their emotional core. This form of narrative contradicts the typical storytelling format Hollywood has perpetuated and insisted upon that characters must show a progression. Top of the Lake disproves this by conveying the idea that location shapes an individual and their interactions are indicative of that said location. This is especially true with the series’ central character, Robin Griffin, who comes back to this small community from her cozy city life and is struck with a past that she has long tried to forget.
The past, and how it crafts someone, is a prevalent theme within Top of the Lake that is heavily focused upon with several of the series’ characters. Elisabeth Moss’ Robin Griffin is placed in the context as someone who has been influenced by her past, yet denies that is the motive to her life choices. Moss portrays her character’s profession of being a detective as having a correlation with a subconscious effort to reconcile a past she doesn’t want to know the answers to. Moss is profound in her role by conveying the self-denial that her past is still within her character’s psyche while also providing sheer determination to understand the contemporary world around her. While her character seeks to live in the present, Moss’ acting conveys a cautious demeanor by which she doesn’t necessarily trust anyone and pushes herself to do to. Moss thereby provides a meticulous performance that showcases the plight of a woman in a man’s industry and world, whose past is linked to both.
The series is clever to have Robin’s past linked to the supporting characters of the series, which reinforces the small-town motif Top of the Lake utilizes. Furthermore, her past is linked with Matt Mitcham, Tui’s father, thus establishing a linear connection in plot. This connection is further threaded to the women’s retreat run by GJ by them settled in land owned by Mitcham. Therefore, by default, the plotline of Top of the Lake is both structured and multilayered by the representation of characters. The characters may not change individually, but collectively they provide a distinction between having clarity in life to being profoundly lost. The miniseries does emphasize these variations of knowing oneself by contrasting the characters of GJ and Matt Mitcham. Holly Hunter’s GJ is perhaps the most profound of these three characters due to her character’s ability to separate herself from the complexities of life and embrace nature instead. The women’s retreat she runs can be described as a nature retreat for the healing of women who have suffered domestic abuse, thus giving GJ a Thoreau-like presence, to which it is encouraged to separate oneself from the conventions of society and simply embrace the simplicity of nature. The mere detail of GJ having been struck by lightning, which incited her to embark on her venture, further establishes the character’s embracement of nature and using it cleanse one’s soul and find deeper meaning. The opposite is represented with Peter Mullen’s Matt Mitcham, whose illegal drug empire represents a side of humanity that has lost its essence due to industry and is reactive towards it. Mitcham is further represented as an emotionally isolated man, who cannot get over the passing of his wife. Mullen’s performance offers a differing perspective of the dominant male, by representing his character as using his masculinity as a cloak to hide his true inner, insecure self. To have people fear him is what detracts them from witnessing his weaknesses.
It should be acknowledged that the unconventionality of Top of the Lake may be off-putting to some viewers, yet to those who can look past that may be able to observe this miniseries as a masterpiece. What makes this series a gem extends beyond the characterization and the acting, but in what the series represents in landscape. It is the location of the miniseries that establishes both the narrative and the various themes that are headlined for the viewer to observe. Jane Campion never forces the location onto the viewer, but one cannot deny her emphasis that one’s environment shapes their very existence. The script and acting reinforce this, but it is up to the viewer to decide whether the message is compelling enough to accept or not.
Primetime Emmy Award Nominations:
Outstanding Miniseries or Movie
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie – Elisabeth Moss
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie – Peter Mullen
Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries
Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries
Best Miniseries or Television Film – Nominated
Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film – Elisabeth Moss *Winner
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