May 7, 2013
Approximately every English-language publication in existence has run an “Is Television Better than the Movies” piece over the past few years. I will bravely buck the whims of headline writers and declare I don’t know why we have to choose. For every Louie or The Wire, there are eight billion CSIs, and a similar ratio holds for the silver screen, as long as your definition of “movies” expands beyond Hollywood. Part of the made-up race to declare TV king involves the influx of big-screen talent to the small, including David Fincher (House of Cards), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Penance) and Michael Mann (Luck). The most successful auteur-to-TV transition I’ve seen so far though, is Jane Campion’s in her BBC/Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake, starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss. Now available to stream on Netflix, it’s yet another police procedural, but the mystery is incidental to its exploration of the toll paid by women’s bodies in the hyper-masculine backwoods of Queenstown, New Zealand, where a young girl would prefer to disappear than endure it.
Jane Campion’s last feature film was Bright Star, a lovely evocation of the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. It was made four years ago, and with funding tightening up worldwide, she decided to return to her roots. Campion got her career started on television, directing the Australian Broadcasting Corporation show Dancing Daze (1986), which led to TV movies and eventually her theatrical debut, Sweetie (1989). So when BBC2 offered her the chance to develop her own series, she was ready, and with long-time writing partner Gerard Lee, created the vice-ridden town of Lake Top and placed it in the former setting of Hobbits and Orcs, the scenic tourist trap Queenstown.
Lake Top is lorded over by the Mitchum family, led by psychotic patriarch Matt (Peter Mullan) and his two lithe and punchy boys. Matt’s twelve-year-old daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe) nearly drowns herself in the titular lake, and is found to be pregnant. A statutory rape investigation opens, and Tui runs off and disappears into the woods. Australian Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a specialist in crimes of sexual abuse, is brought back to her hometown to help the case. While all this is happening, an enigmatic guru named GJ (Holly Hunter) starts a commune for burnt-out women in a collection of shipping containers by a plot of land by the lake called Paradise.
These ladies were initially going to be the focus of the series. Campion told the New Zealand Herald that:
I thought I would like to write a story about a post-menopausal women’s camp, where women went who felt … they had fallen out of social reality because they were un****able, or unsexy or whatever, and I think being un****able in our society is [to be] fairly invisible, because it’s such a sexualised society.
In the finished series, the camp becomes a fulcrum about which the characters pivot. At various stages Robin and Tui find solace in disappearing there, as their sexualization in Lake Top makes them intensely visible, both of them magnets for the animalistic males of the Mitchum clan and their backwoods buddies. For the Mitchums, the camp is a testing ground, to see how far they can push their power. Peter Mullan is a riveting grotesque, he looks like a hippie MMA fighter with his greasy gray shoulder length locks topping a brick shithouse body. Mullan is a holy terror, whipping himself in acts of sanctification, in penance for the drug-fueled short-fuse mania of his daily life, in which he receives any opposition to his will as a mortal threat.
Holly Hunter is done up in the straight gray hair of Campion herself, her bearing that of a mystic, but her advice is filled with brutal pragmatism. The word she says most frequently is “no”. No your man will not return and it’s possible your life will not improve. The therapy is in being and being together, the camaraderie of women living a daily life free of an objectifying eye, at least until they feel willing to be objectified.
Robin has no such choice. She is constantly on display, not just for her looks but for her past. She had left Laketop years ago because of a brutal crime she suffered as a teen. Her attackers still live and work in town, and Robin tries to use that attention to aid the investigation. She drinks at the local pub, rousing the hicks’ hackles, luring out the sickest and most violent of them. But it is not just the bogans (New Zealand slang for redneck) who circle her lustily – local Detective Al Parker (David Wenham) is a more civilized harasser. His hand-holding and concerning gazes are paternalistic until they are not. The fragility and permeability of Robin’s body is further emphasized by the cancer that is ravaging her mother’s brittle frame. All the women in town seem to be dissolving.
It is a feministTwin Peaks, even name-checking David Lynch’s Blue Velvet at one point, kicking up the unconscious pathologies and unspoken desires of the eccentric residents of a serenely beautiful town. Campion often films the characters in extreme long shot against the misty blue mountains, almost invisible except for their forward motion. That is the only way Tui can survive – keep moving before the men in town can erase her forever.