While some cable and television distributors fund their own productions (note the excellence of “House of Cards”, the final season of “Damages”, and the forthcoming “Arrested Development”), Sundance is in the enviable position of previewing thousands of entries for their annual Sundance Festival. “Top of the Lake“is an exciting option from the Sundance Channel, created by Gerard Lee and Jane Campion (who produced and directed the Academy Award winner “The Piano”).
The first episode opens with the disappearance of a 12-year old pregnant girl, Tui, in a remote backwater town in southern New Zealand named Laketop. The hamlet of Laketop is as much a character in the series as are the main actors. Laketop seethes with brutal violence, fear and bigoted townspeople, with a history of brutal rapes and missing young girls. And the plot takes the viewer down slowly as it sinks into this corner of the world which has no place for outsiders, even residents who have moved away and returned.
Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss of Peggy Olsen fame in “Mad Men”) is one such former resident. A furloughed investigator, home to visit her dying mother, Robin does not want to be in Laketop. No one else, including her mother, wants her there either.
The incestuous pathology of the townspeople and their dangerous secrets are slowly revealed through seven episodes. Magnificent scenery obscures a cesspool of corruption and brutality. Tui is always the undercurrent that keeps you on the edge of your seat, shocked by her heartbreaking situation. Brilliant acting with raw emotional nakedness at every turn results in some explosive surprises throughout.
“Top of the Lake” is a remarkable thriller, in some ways similar to the excellent “The Killing”, set in the northwest. While there is an original storyline in the pre-teen who is at the center of the investigation, “Top of the Lake” has two stories which do not always integrate as well as they could have. The Paradise commune–a recovery group of middle-aged women with their hippie guru GJ (Holly Hunter)–offers comic relief and some insightful observations that could not have been presented easily in another way. However, GJ seems wasted in the last episodes and could have been a catalyst for the solving of the crime. Consequently, there isn’t the dramatic liftoff the narrative should give us.
Nonetheless, I really recommend this as a binge-viewing weekend excursion (available through Netflix). Enter a dark, sinister world full of menace and deception. The bravery of the women is inspirational and the dramatic energy of a Campion production is a wonder to behold.