Top of the Lake

The rise of Nordic Noir is arguably the biggest phenomenon in Television since the Mystery Box nature of Lost and the shows it influenced. This new release from BBC Worldwide could be dubbed Kiwi Noir, and sees Jane Campion reuniting with her writer on 1989 film Sweeties, Gerard Lee, to tell a tale of fear and loathing in the fictional New Zealand small town of Lake Top.

There is a faint recall of Twin Peaks in the early episodes with a horrific crime in a small town sending shockwaves through the closed community. There is an outsider whose arrival and search for simple answers are resisted and then threatened however there is no Lynchian playfulness here. The series begins in the bleak morning fog with the dark clouds gathering overhead, a girl is standing halfway submerged in the titular lake and for a moment we fear for her safety and her sanity. This is Tui, a canny twelve-year old whose pregnancy introduces Detective Robin Griffin to investigate her state (and then her disapperance). We arrive in the shallow end of the mystery and when we are at the top of the lake there is only one way to go.

From the first episode it is Peter Mullan who steals the show as the patriarch Matt Mitchem who rules the town with his vicious offspring and who revels in the ubiquitous threat of violence. It is his daughter who is pregnant and his land which is sold off from under him to a women’s refuge (complete with landscape ruining shipping containers) and a not undue amount of suspicion falls on him when a real estate agent ends up face down in the lake.  Elisabeth Moss, fresh from West Winging and Mad Menning, is a revelation as Detective Robin Griffin, the young police officer who leads the investigation. Her latent fragility is well masked by a measured determination to pull apart the prejudices and fear which rule the town. These are the two opposing forces of the show, and the fate of Tui is a potent MacGuffin.

The cinematography is sumptuous and oppressive in equal measure, the rolling hills and violent, varied landscapes convey an isolation which is all important to the series’ tone. As the mystery unfolds and our characters’ motives are revealed the centre element of power becomes a focus. The pull of the past and the fear of the future are a fine dynamic for Campion to bring in social and gender struggles which pervade the town. Though this presents many opportunities to propel the story some of the storylines fizzle out unsatisfactorily, characters who brim with personality burn out all too quickly and this loss of clarity threatens the taut story which is being told. It’s well worth sticking with though as the writing is excellent overall with each new hour of the series bringing its own questions.

Top of the Lake has a serene, mysterious quality to it, one which clouds a brutal story which is sometimes hard to watch. Mullen and Moss are well matched but it is clear who the writers enjoyed writing for. Holly Hunter’s character, in contrast, never meets her potential. In choosing to keep her to the shadows of the story rather than as a bright centre she is lost. These are minor quibbles however and attest to the engaging appeal of the show, evident from the first few minutes.

The last decade has seen a number of high profile shows and trends which have not only embraced the modern viewing habits of the on-demand audience but which have set the medium apart from its cinematic cousin. Top of the Lake has a wealth of talent and some very satisfying characters in its brutal mix and is a worthy way to spend six hours, right to the bitter end.

Top of The Lake BBC DVD is available to buy here or catch up on iTunes here.