Set in the natural splendour of New Zealand’s South Island, six-part mini-series Top Of The Lake tells the story of Detective Robin Griffin who is visiting her hometown as an outsider after relocating to Sydney. Griffin investigates the pregnancy and subsequent disappearance of twelve-year-old Tui; concurrent to the crime’s investigation, Griffin unearths parallels of innocence lost within her own history. Mysteries deepen as we discover that the idyllic setting provides a veneer for the close-knit community’s unpleasant, ambiguous, or plain ruthless characters.
Unlike seasonal serial television dramas, Top Of The Lake is definitively self-contained within its six episodes –it’s a cohesive, satisfying whole. Academy Award winning director Jane Campion has reunited with writer Gerard Lee, marking the first time the two have worked together in 17 years. “I love crime mysteries and I wanted to write one that had room to expand like a true novel, so the idea of doing a six-hour long story was very exciting to me,” says Campion.
Coinciding with the discovery that Tui is five months pregnant, a group of women mysteriously arrive to set up a shipping container commune on the picturesque lakeside – much to the chagrin of the domineering, and plain scary, figurehead Matt Mitcham. “I wanted to write about a group of women who feel like they have fallen off the edge of the earth,” says Campion. “They’re older, disillusioned and not really part of the dominant patriarchal community or culture we live in. So I imagined a patriarchy up in Laketop, led by Matt Mitcham, and that the matriarchy and patriarchy could be in a dance together – a dance that could also turn violent.
“The women’s camp and the Mitcham family are struggling over the same piece of land, called Paradise. Matt Mitcham has been trying to manipulate the owner of the land into selling it to him at a very reduced price, but then out of nowhere, these women have arrived and offered twice the price and bought it, and he’s absolutely furious. He’s been living there his whole life and suddenly the prize has been ripped out beneath him. And as difficult and aggressive as he is, he does have a genuine love of the land, and another complexity – his bullying mother is buried there, in expectation the land would be his.”
Elisabeth Moss, who gained a breakthrough role as Peggy on Mad Men, is responsible for brining protagonist Robin Griffin to life. While it might be counter-intuitive to cast an American actor as a Sydney-based New Zealander, especially amongst a stellar cast of local talent, Moss pulls off the role with uncanny aplomb. “Robin is returning home to a place where traumatic events happened to her. She feels strong, invincible, she has become an accomplished detective, but she discovers she can be brought to her knees by her past, by what she has denied and is hoping to forget,” says Campion. “It’s a strange thing when you go to cast your leading character and you find yourself having not a clue who they are. I just wanted someone to show me who Robin Griffin is. And no one did that in a way that convinced us all until Elisabeth Moss’s audition tape came in. She brought the dialogue into a place where it felt deep and true and complex and she did it quite quietly. I was really surprised, but I totally believed her.
BY RICK WICKMAN
Top Of The Lake is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.