By David Hudson
“It’s only March, but I already expect the Sundance Channel miniseries Top of the Lake to make my year-end Top 10 list,” begins New York‘s Matt Zoller Seitz. “I recommend it not just to fans of filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano), who co-wrote and co-produced, and Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, who stars as the heroine, a troubled police investigator, but to anyone who’s watched in dismay over the last 21 years as program after program tried to be the next Prime Suspect and failed miserably.”
“Moss stars as Robin Griffin, a big-city cop whose visit home to her cancer-stricken mother gets upended by one of those horrific cases that consume the lives of mystery-fiction heroes,” explains Alan Scherstuhl in the Voice.
“First, a 12-year-old girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) turns up pregnant and unwilling to identify the father. Not long afterwards, Tui herself goes missing, possibly a runaway but possibly not, with hundreds of acres of bushland to hide (or be hid) in. Robin tries to rally the all-dude police department to devoting serious resources and manpower to the case; when one local lug argues back that women in primitive societies have long gone into the wilderness to give birth, Robin gives him a dressing down so thorough you’ll probably want to play it back—especially if you would relish seeing Mad Men‘s Peggy delivering the same speech with the same confidence.”
“At first, Top of the Lake‘s narrative shell doesn’t seem to be of the same breed as Holy Smoke or The Piano,” writes Chris Cabin in Slant, “but by the conclusion of the first installment, it’s clear that the series represents a new peak for Campion, who uses the forest surrounding Wakapitu as a literal cradle of creation. Top of the Lake gives Campion a wholly remarkable emotional landscape to work with, a tantalizing canvas for her to indulge her tangy sense of symbolism and her curiosity with how sexualized traumas and emotional tremors in youth bear out in the professional and romantic lives of grown women.”
“The mood of the series is so taut and eerie, I couldn’t tell if the story would stay grounded in reality or shift into bizarre Twin Peaks territory,” wrote Jada Yuan for Vulture from Sundance, where the entire series premiered over the course of a single day. Scherstuhl, by the way, has more on how Top of the Lake is reminiscent of Twin Peaks.
More from Justin Chang (Variety; “absorbing and richly atmospheric”), Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter; “an edgy, disturbing and altogether first-rate crime drama”), and Rodrigo Perez (Playlist; “compelling and mysterious”). And Dana Stevens, John Swansburg, and June Thomas discuss the series at Slate. Interviews with Campion: Tyler Coates (BlackBook) and Anne Thompson.
Updates, 4/1: “One of the reasons I was keen to review Top of the Lake,” writes Michael Sicinski for Cinema Scope, “was that I wanted to see how it matched up against other recent auteurist TV/cinema hybrids, such as Olivier Assayas’s Carlos (2010) and Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce (2011). As it happens, Top of the Lake has much more in common with last year’s disappointing Kurosawa Kiyoshi miniseries Penance, a TV project through and through. Like Penance, Top of the Lake finds a major artist getting bogged down in genre rules, hurried plotting and clumsy editing. But even more damagingly, Campion rolls out not only a narrative idea but a worldview—male dominance as a toxic force, strangling the world like kudzu in a garden—and sacrifices that vision to off-the-rails plot twists, character contrivance, and convenient episode-seven mopping up.”
“Peter Mullan is a guy you wouldn’t want to meet on a lonely path with only the mountains and the lakes to see what he might do,” writes David Thomson for the New Republic. “Mullan is playing the part in Scots, which is not always easy to hear, but he is one of our great acting presences. Just think of him in Miss Julie, The Claim, Red Riding, and Tyrannosaur—and then there’s The Magdalene Sisters and Neds, which he directed. He knows the monstrousness in people; we believe he has been there. But has he come back?”
Update, 4/6: Campion’s “archetypes, like Harvey Keitel’s noble savage in The Piano or Abbie Cornish’s romantic playgirl in Bright Star, grow spines, but they’re still replicas, albeit imperfect ones,” writes Jen Vafidis in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “It’s not that Top of the Lake is posing as a detective thriller, as some critics have suggested. It’s that the writing on the show is particularly self-conscious. There’s an echo effect. Campion plays a much larger game of bait-and-switch. You are watching a procedural drama that refuses to be simply that, often comporting itself as a meditation on trauma and recovery. The series is miming its detective thriller predecessors while it throws a wrench in their gears. All while looking distractingly gorgeous.”