March 19, 2013



TOP OF THE LAKE:  Monday 10PM on Sundance Channel

There’s a scene in the second hour of TOP OF THE LAKE, the miniseries co-written (with Gerard Lee) and co-directed (with Garth Davis) by Jane Campion, the filmmaker behind The Piano, Holy Smoke, An Angel At My Table, Bright Star and other idiosyncratic art films, where an impatient tycoon travels in his helicopter to see GJ (Holly Hunter), who runs a loosely organized commune for damaged women where his ex-wife is in residence.  He questions GJ about the program she runs, and is outraged to find out there is no program, no timetable.  The women there just live in (barely) converted shipping containers and live their lives until they’re ready to leave.

American viewers may feel something of the same frustration while watching Top of the Lake, at least in the first two of its seven hours.  Although technically the series is a procedural–and one that superficially resembles The Killing to a remarkable extent–about the search by New Zealand police detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) for the missing, pregnant 12-year old Tui (Jacqueline Joe), it’s much more a mood piece, and a study of the debased relations between men and women.  It can make The Killing seem fast-paced, although it’s much less annoying to watch because it leaves out the zillion red herrings and contrivances of the AMC series.

The area where GJ’s commune makes its home goes by the name Paradise, and the clearing where the women have their shipping container homes is called Eden, and despite Top of the Lake‘s considerable artistry, to an extent it suffers from that kind of unsubtlety throughout.  With only one or two exceptions, every man in the show is at least a sexist pig and often outright monstrous.  The biggest monster of them all is Matt Mitchum (Peter Mullan), father of the missing girl, and unless the show is planning a major plot twist later on, seemingly the incestuous father of her child.  (Mullan may be getting into a unique kind of awful rut:  Top of the Lake is his second project in two years, after Tyrannosaur, that features his character killing an innocent dog.)  Naturally Mitchum is murderously determined to take Paradise back from the women, monomaniacally certain that it’s rightfully his.

Despite the leisurely pace and sometimes crude characterizations, there’s a great deal to recommend in Top of the Lake.  Campion has always been extraordinary with actors, and here Moss gives a much fuller performance than she can as a supporting performer on Mad Men, with an independence and darkness that goes beyond the limits of Peggy Olsen.  Hunter hasn’t had very much to do so far, but she’s typically riveting doing it, and Mullan is practiced at playing a revolting human being.  Visually, too, the show is gorgeous, making use of its locations with sweeping, atmospheric photography by Adam Arkapaw.

The first two hours of Top of the Lake don’t exactly grip the viewer with the need to find out what’s happened to Tui.  They do, however, make one want to see what Campion and her cast will do next.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."