Jane Campion's Top of the Lake
What It Is: A mini-series out of New Zealand which ran on the Sundance Channel and is, as of this writing, streaming on Netflix. A pregnant twelve year old girl is found in a local lake with deadly waters which results in a police investigation lead by Detective Robin Griffin, played by Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss. Detective Griffin has her own sorrowful history in the town and as she investigates young Tui Mitcham's situation, she is also confronted with her own story.
Why It Is Awesome: Two words. Jane. Campion.
Not enough? Okay, I'll give you some more. I struggle with this because I don't want to go all spoilery on you. Let's start with the genius of how this very difficult story is handled. Obviously, a pregnant twelve year old girl at the center of the narrative makes it upsetting before you even begin watching. You know from the outset that this is work dealing with serious and important topics. Anyone familiar with Campion's films knows that she is extraordinarily good at this. What makes her particularly good at handling the difficult and sensitive is that she does not pull punches. Events are shot or told in a matter-of-fact way, with a particular visual style that is hard to describe. (For some reason the phrase Monet in motion pops into my head, but that can't be accurate. So I'll just leave that weird little piece of my id here for someone else to parse.)
Here's the thing, often an audience is drawn to focus on the events, or "who has done what to whom" and it becomes easy to lose sight of the characters beyond their role in the events/plot. Jane Campion's direction refuses to allow her audiences to lose sight of the characters' humanity. I think what I mean to say here is that while terrible things happen, those terrible things do not necessarily define who the characters are. Those things are perhaps integral to who characters are, but we the audience do not get to look away from other things about the central characters. Yes, there are victims here, but the thing is that they do not stay in that role. What defines them is what comes after, and this, I think is what the story shows us. Life goes on. There are unexpected consequences, there is hope, redemption, joy.
The cast is crazy impressive. The actors and actresses that I did not recognize from other work were all memorable in this piece. There is not a single throw-away performance, not a single wasted piece of dialogue.
Elisabeth Moss is a name/face you might recognize from AMC's Mad Men as the character Peggy Olson. Peggy is one of my favorite female characters in television, and after seeing Elisabeth Moss's performance in Top of the Lake as Detective Griffin, she is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses.
Holly Hunter does not disappoint as the iconoclastic leader, GJ, of a women's camp that has just set up in Paradise. The character is surprising in her harshness, but what she hands out is truth, which is kind even as it stings.
Another performance that bears mentioning is that of Peter Mullan as Matt Mitcham, Tui Mitcham's father. The character is complex and layered, terrifying one minute and a teddy-bear the next. There is so much more to say about the character, but I'm starting to venture into spoiler territory here... just, pay attention to this dude. The actor has got some serious chops and the character he plays is intriguing.