TOP OF THE LAKE – made for TV A
Australia Great Britain (350 mi – 7 episodes) 2013 d: Jane Campion and Garth Davis
You can be very hard. And what I don't like is that you think it’s strength.
—Robin’s mother Jude Griffin (Robyn Nevin)
There’s no match for the tremendous intelligence of the body. —GJ (Holly Hunter)
There has been a gradual introduction of movies made for television into film festivals, where the Melbourne and Telluride Film Festivals were among the first to program the three films in the RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009) made for British television, while the full-length, 5-hour French version of the Olivier Assayas film Carlos – made for French TV (2010) premiered at Cannes, and the Venice Festival premiered Todd Haynes’ MILDRED PIERCE (2011), all to critical acclaim. This year Jane Campion’s feminist noir TOP OF THE LAKE became the first television series to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, later screening again at Berlin, a 6-hour jointly produced BBC and Sundance Channel film TV miniseries spread out over 7 episodes, though the pacing and burning intensity are much more effective when compressed into a single viewing, especially without having to undergo commercials and the repeating credit sequence. Since it had been four years since she made a film, Campion reveals her thoughts on finding more freedom working in television from the Hollywood Reporter, “Feature filmmaking is now quite conservative. The lack of restraints, the longer story arc: It's a luxury not there generally in film.” Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990) was originally produced as a New Zealand television miniseries, but was re-edited and released internationally as a film. Set in Laketop, a small town set on a gorgeous lake in a remote and mountainous area of New Zealand (actually shot by Adam Arkapaw at South Island’s Moke Lake and the cities of Queenstown and Glenorchy, including Lake Wakatipu seen here: 1,280 × 960 pixels), Elisabeth Moss plays Robin Griffin, a big city Australian police detective from Sydney with a specialty in child investigations, who happens to be visiting her mother who is stricken with cancer, but it’s also something of a coming home experience, as she grew up in the region as well. Called in for an emergency, the local police, under the command of Detective Sgt. Al Parker (David Wenham), have a pregnant 12-year old Thai girl named Tui Mitcham (newcomer Jacqueline Joe, supposedly discovered at an Auckland swimming pool), who may have been attempting a miscarriage or drowning herself in the lake. What’s immediately clear is not just the plight of the child, but the antiquated male-dominated police procedures where women continue to be leered at as sexual objects, routinely called sluts (or worse), and crimes against women are not really taken seriously by anyone in town, seen more as the usual sport between a man and a woman, so no one respects Robin’s authority on the case and can be heard making snickering comments on the side. No one, for instance, takes the crime of rape against a 12-year old girl seriously except Detective Griffin, where they all heartily agree to her face that she’s right but then make no effort whatsoever to find the rapist.
It’s no accident that the best episodes are directed by Campion herself, including the first, fourth, and final two episodes, feeling almost mythical, featuring some stunning performances, where the richly detailed pieces of information unraveling in the opening few minutes are nothing less than intoxicating, filled with the beauty of the landscape, local color and plenty of eccentric characters. Echoes of David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS (1990 – 1991) are evident, especially in the exotic setting, the small town mindset, a body washed ashore, the toxic effect of holding onto secrets, strangely offbeat characters, and the presence of an outsider, in each case an abnormally astute police detective. Like Laura Palmer, Tui is at the heart of the film, attractively appealing and the picture of innocence, as no one knows the truth about her, especially after she reveals the name of the father is literally “no one.” Through Tui, Campion seems to be suggesting that women’s behavior in particular is a product of family dynamics, the surrounding community values, and the random events that comprise our lives. What’s perhaps most frightening is the callously disturbing and pathological behavior of her father, Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan at his most sinister), the town’s drug lord whose two sons are equally psychopathic in carrying out his dirty business (where the patriarchal family circle is actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). We see evidence of their nonchalant brutality in an opening scene, where they haven’t an ounce of concern for human life, living in a heavily armed fortress compound protected by modern surveillance equipment and intentionally starved pitbulls that run rampant. When Tui quickly disappears, we begin to understand what it might be like as a girl growing up in this town. This exact same subject is then explored through black and white flashback sequences, as Robin suffered her own share of childhood trauma growing up in this town, where the parallel lives of Robin and Tui remain linked throughout the film. Interestingly, Elisabeth Moss was not the first choice for the film, as Campion offered the part to Anna Paquin, who declined due to her pregnancy, and when the part was offered to an American actress, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation pulled out of the project, insisting that it would only fund the film with an Australian or New Zealand lead actress. The choice of Moss is literally perfect in the role, where it’s hard to think of the film without her, largely because she never overacts or displays too much, and though she is deeply scarred, reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s tenuous predicament as Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), she continues to be defined by her intelligence, constantly guarding her thoughts, where the impact of others can easily be read upon her face, an opaque presence that mirrors the world around her, remaining mysteriously vulnerable and even fragile while standing up to a dominating male presence.
What distinguishes this film is the densely plotted novelesque quality, where even comically drawn secondary characters are significant to the overall portrayal of humans desperately in need, where there’s an untapped ferocity of spirit seen in both Tui and Robin. Adding to this picture of a lone voice in the wilderness is an inspired idea to create a separatist women’s collective, a Greek chorus of damaged women living together in trucked-in shipping containers at a lakeside retreat called Paradise that sits on disputed land, as Matt claims they’re trespassing, a rag tag group of exiled women led by Holly Hunter as the dispassionate GJ, a guru-like presence in pants spouting Zen-like philosophic utterances, as if she can read each person’s future, but possessing the deranged personality of a social misfit herself, often seen pacing the grounds while off in the distance a few naked women are continually seen running free. The lustful nature of the women is part of the untold story, including the sexual promiscuity of several of the women living on the compound, including a memorable scene from Geneviève Lemon (the 7-minute woman) who played the lead role in Sweetie (1989), as the men in town are perceived as testosterone fueled adolescents, especially in the moments Robin spends enduring endlessly abusive taunting by men in bars, yet woman have to find their place in an existing contemporary landscape, including Robin’s own sexual desires, seen developing for Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), a childhood sweetheart and one of Matt’s offspring, a good son that rejects the maniacal nature of his tyrannical crime boss father. The two are a sexual force bonded together by her childhood trauma, where Johnno was her high school prom date and suspiciously absent afterwards on a night she was brutally gang raped by four drunken men. This trauma gives her all the more reason to protect Tui, even if the town has given up looking for her, suspecting she must be dead after the passage of two months. There’s an interesting thematic projection of men’s fears and limitations, expressed through the perceived effects of hostile elements, as no one thinks she could survive out there alone in the cold, while the repeated mention of the lethal quality of the water is always described as so cold that “no one could survive in that water.” Yet somehow, just when Robin is told her mother has terminal cancer, easily one of the key moments in the film, intimately captured with the camera holding completely onto Robin’s face, at that exact moment when all hope is lost, there is also a chance that Tui has somehow survived.
Tui’s absence changes the nature of the film, as her unseen presence, Robin’s own personal trauma, and her mother’s impending death all blend together and continually haunt Robin, who becomes the film’s dominant force, as events are continuously seen through her eyes. The on again and off again relationship with her boss, Al, always seems to be of secondary importance, part of the police procedural component of the film, as their presence together is usually mandatory. But his exclusively male take on events offers a differing viewpoint than her own, but Campion is careful not to make him one-dimensional, where he’s one of the more complexly drawn characters in the film, though never entirely likeable, especially as he’s seen to be in cahoots with Matt’s criminal empire, usually protecting him or tipping him off about upcoming police activities. But Robin doesn’t know this and continually exposes a vulnerable side to him, where her life is an open book while we know almost nothing about him. His extravagant home offers a clue, and is the setting for one of the more controversial events in the film, as he invites her over for dinner where she stupidly drinks too much and eventually passes out, waking up alone in his bedroom the next morning wearing one of his shirts. He reassures her that nothing happened, that she vomited all over her clothes, so he was forced to wash them, all of which sounds like a perfectly acceptable explanation. And that’s the problem with Al’s character, as his answers are too pat, sounding overly detached and too well reasoned ahead of time, never speaking passionately in the moment, where what comes across is an arrogant and pompous man that’s used to getting his way and never having to answer for it. Al typifies the male mentality of the town, even if Matt is the Alpha male, while he sits quietly lurking in the background collecting his cut of the overall operations, running a secret Ecstasy and amphetamine lab underneath Matt’s home. In contrast to Robin and Al, Matt has his own sexual experience with one of the women from the compound, Anita, Robyn Malcolm, who simply craves male companionship. Their hallucinogenic outdoor experience in the woods on Ecstasy is unusual for how it sensitively portrays a ruthless crime boss at his most vulnerable state, used much like the LSD cemetery sequence in Easy Rider (1969), where the dealers are seen under the influence of their own drugs, often haunted by impending thoughts of death and mortality.
At some point, and one barely realizes when it occurs, the focus shifts from the overly destructive and malicious behavior of the adults to the often misunderstood and more innocent motives of kids, where a strange young girl (Georgi Kay) dropped off at the women’s compound is continuously seen playing an electric guitar in various natural outdoor locations, NEW Ipswich- Georgi Kay (live) (4:50), offering voice to a new and different force that hasn’t been seen much or heard from, namely the next generation, Tui’s generation. Robin interrogates a young boy for shoplifting, Jamie (Luke Buchanon), seen crossing the lake in a kayak, suspected of bringing food to a drop site, significant as he’s one of Tui’s best friends, perhaps even the father. Jamie has the unusual habit of not speaking to adults, so Al tries to knock some sense into this kid, using decisively forceful measures until he’s thrown out of the interrogation room by Robin. The kid disappears the next day, along with all the food in the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets, leading to a kind of idyllic Lord of the Flies gathering of kids in the woods without the presence of a bullying leader, where we discover the re-emergence of Tui along with boatloads of friends. But Matt and his gang are soon on to them, forcing a very pregnant Tui and Jamie to escape, only to lead to certain tragedy, which has a horrific effect, especially within the women’s compound. The slowed pacing also reflects a kind of impasse, a turning in the tide, where some of the women are finally willing to stand up to these powerful men, refusing to be scared or intimidated by them. In a memorial sequence for one of the lost kids, Georgi Kay - Joga (Top of the Lake - Jamies memorial scene ... (2:40), featuring Mirrah Foulkes as the distraught mother, some may be shocked or confused at just how unmanly the women are, as they don’t go the Eastwood vigilante route and demand justice through the power of a gun or through brute strength, which is what movies have trained us to expect, but this psychological transformation has been slow in coming and continues to evolve at an excruciatingly slow pace, yet it’s among the more unique scenes in the film, as the women collectively express a quiet desperation without any hint of violence, viewed as an exclusively male domain.
The finale goes even further down that road, where the discovery of a date rape drug figures prominently into the tortured lives of teens, many of whom in the past have ended up dead under mysteriously unexplained circumstances. It’s all a bit alarming, but it also figures into Robin’s own past, where it doesn’t do her any good to dig too deeply into the heart of her own trauma, never wanting to meet the child she gave up for adoption as she never wanted to explain to a child that they were the product of a gang rape, thinking this revelation could induce suicidal thoughts of zero self-worth, deciding it’s better to “Fuck the truth,” where life is so much more complicated than we could ever imagine, where human behavior is simply too despicable. One theme Campion appears to be advocating is that the more attention paid to pain, the worse things often become. The movie can be shocking at times with its spurts of sudden violence, but in this film it’s not about women chasing after vengeance, where the obsession for justice only creates more injustice, as it’s so easy to lose sight of the arc of your own life, but it also shouldn’t be some inhumane evil that we continually answer to. In the end, the film veers into an ambiguously disturbing road movie, like a journey through an existential wasteland, actually discussed at great length in the women’s group talkathons, which are almost a parody of self-help groups, where GJ often berates their whining and moaning, claiming they’re “madder than ever,” saying she needs to “just get away from these crazy bitches,” getting as far away as she can, yet still taking us on an interior journey more self-reflective and psychologically complex than what we’re used to from crime dramas, like say the highly successful THE MILLENNIUM TRILOGY (2009). Actually it’s more like the continuing arduousness of The Odyssey, a prolonged journey filled with epic challenges, where the hero survives only by extraordinary cunning and perseverance, where likewise the collective effect of this film is an assault on the senses, causing a shock to the system and a rewiring of the circuitry, finding oneself at the center of a great human tragedy, offering no societal cure or moral answers, nothing more than the brave choice of learning how to discover our own humanity, often the last one thing we pay any attention to as we’re so busy navigating our way through life. But in the end, eerily enough, someone, perhaps even Robin, is going to be in a position to help raise a child that is the product of gang rape, as the cycle of life continues where we’re continually forced to face our worst fears.