Home > Reviews, Television > Television Review: Top of the Lake

Television Review: Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake (BBC; 2013)

In the opening sequence of the first episode of Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s resonant anthology drama, a young girl rides her bike along isolated roads in the vast and forbiddingly beautiful landscape around New Zealand’s Lake Wakatipu. Leaving her bike, she wades waist deep into the freezing, ghostly water. Dwarfed by the enormity of not only the natural world but her social milieu, she is alone, wet, and shivering. Her fate seems of no cosmic concern.

Yet Top of the Lake is narratively and thematically driven by what happens to this girl, Tui (Jacqueline Joe). The 12-year-old is examined after being coaxed out of the water and discovered to be pregnant. She is interrogated by Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), lately arrived back to her hometown of Laketop, having left a long-term fiancee in Australia to see to her terminally ill mother. Tui is reluctant to share anything with the authorities, likely out of fear of her imperious father, a veritable local warlord named Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan). She soon disappears, and in investigating her case Robin uncovers terrible secrets lurking beneath the surface of the community as well as in her own past.

Top of the Lake shares many important qualities with recent television detective noirs like True Detective and The Killing. One could call it Southern Hemisphere Gothic without inaccuracy (if not without preciousness). Proceeding from a tremendously vivid sense of place and visual mystery (Adam Arkapaw, who also very memorably shot True Detective, is the cinematographer), this is a story of small-town perversion and evil, of awful, ugly truths buried in rich forests, drowned beneath glassy waters, and stranded on the slopes of the picturesque Remarkables mountain chain.

But unlike both of those aforementioned mysterious telenovellas, Top of the Lake is rooted in a robustly feminist perspective and exposes the self-contradictory sickness of patriarchal power in all of its terrible moral decay. Like the underaged Tui, Robin was raped after a local version of prom by a truckload of drunken yokels, her high school sweetheart and date Johnno Mitchum (Thomas M. Wright) helpless to stop them. She has been profoundly damaged by this experience in ways that she doesn’t completely understand, and the pathology bursts to the surface when the Tui Mitchum case hits snags.

Snagged it very often is, as Robin must contend with not only the uncompromising Matt Mitchum but also her chauvinistic, condescending commanding officer Al Parker (David Wenham), who often seems to be directing the investigation away from the Mitchum clan and towards tidier if less convincing resolutions. Mitchum and Parker are a dual-visaged Janus of discriminatory male power. Al Parker boasts that he directed a lynch-mob-style posse that exiled all but one of Robin’s assaulters years ago, and has a clearly established symbiotic power-sharing partnership with the volatile Mitchum, who is practically the uncrowned feudal lord of Laketop. Al flirts with Robin with creepy insistence, and generally uses and abuses his position of authority for very dark and immoral ends indeed.

If Al Parker is the super-ego of the local patriarchal unconscious, then Matt Mitchum is its raging, dangerous id. Well-armed and protected in a high-security high-peaked manse like a pharaoh in a pyramid, Matt runs a local drug trade ring, owns vast tracts of land, has an army of bikers at his command, and keeps pretty much anyone of consequence in his pocket. He’s threatening, seductive, and manipulative. But his show of strength and masculinity (marked aurally as well by his burly Scots accent) masks private insecurities and troubles, including erectile dysfunction with adult female partners and a twisted habit of self-flagellation while kneeling before his mother’s grave. He’s an imposing villain narratively and symbolically, but his every action and interest seems far too easy, far too obvious. Wenham’s Al turns out to be a monster of at least equal or greater consequence who is much more interesting in his social conventionality and integration.

Matt Mitchum is inherently heavy-handed and so is the way Campion and Lee have written him. Matt’s sons are even named Luke, Mark, and John, a clear reference to the biblical Evangelists. Without getting too deep into the biblical scholarship around the symbols of the Evangelists, Matthew is symbolized as a winged man or angel, emphasizing Christ’s human nature and the primacy of reason and man’s will is achieving salvation. Mark and Luke are symbolized by a winged lion and bull respectively, and the two sons who still live with Matt are indeed enforcers, lieutenants, servants of his absolute power. John, finally, tends to be figured as an eagle, and indeed Johnno was the one Mitchum boy who exercised his freedom to fly away from his father’s malevolent influence and continues to defy and oppose him. Although this is not a show particularly about religion in any way (Maori-derived spirituality crops up here and there, but that’s about it), this association connects patriarchy’s position of social and cultural authority to institutional Christianity’s similar position.

Campion and Lee do provide a social alternative to these patriarchal structures, contained and compromised though it may be. A patch of Mitchum’s land in a place suggestively called Paradise is sold for the use of a kind of women’s therapy commune (it’s also the land that his mother is buried on, so the matriarchal aura is strong there). The location and the women who dwell there play a role in the events of the plot, usually as a refuge or safe haven from trauma or violence; it’s the last place Tui is seen before her disappearance into the wilderness, and nurses Robin more than once in instances of both emotional and physical need. Even Mitchum can’t resist the commune’s pull, though he derides these “crazy bitches” in their modified shipping containers on land he feels should be his own; he is briefly involved romantically with one of the denizens (Robyn Malcolm), before his pathologies and hidden crimes banish her and the potential happiness she represented from his side.

The “patients” at this women-only recovery centre in the middle of nowhere answer to an inscrutable, grey-haired guru named GJ (Holly Hunter), who mostly sits in a fur-strewn armchair and preaches disillusionment. When she says anything at all, she scoffs at the very idea of the fuzzy new-age enlightenment that most of the women seem inclined to believe that they’re seeking. Her advice is gnomic and usually quite worthless when it’s parsed, but her community represents a stark and generally preferable alternative social structure to the unhealthy chauvinistic order that predominates under the watch of Al and Matt.

When a life is claimed in Matt’s gangster-ish search for his daughter in the woods, the memorial is held in Paradise, with a funereal pyre and a Björk cover as elegy. It’s the only place in this gorgeous but haunted landscape that such a human-focused moment is possible. Top of the Lake envisions a symbolic location where the imposing and dangerous natural world chokes off human decency and agency, its landscapes inherently inhuman and therefore its crusty patriarchal order equally so. Even if feminine community has its own issues, it’s presented here as a favourable alternative to the homosocial sociopathy that rules Laketop and, by implication, the wider world as well.

Categories: Reviews, Television
  1. Larry and Lorraine Langager
    April 18, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    This one is at the top of my list to see. Very good review Hon.

    Sent from my iPad


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