Top of the Lake DVD Review: Top of My Best of 2014 List

A young girl, all of 12 years old and pregnant, wades into a lake at the top of a mountain on the bottom of the world. We are unsure if she is trying to induce a miscarriage or kill herself. Before either can occur, she is rescued. When her pregnancy is determined, the police investigate, but she is either incapable or unwilling to cooperate and within a couple of days, she has vanished completely.

Suspicions fall on her father, Matt (Peter Mullan) the local drug lord and his clan of sons. Maybe one of them got her pregnant and killed her to destroy the evidence. Or it could be that she ran away, fearing what her father would do to her when he finds out she’s pregnant. Or it could be the old man with a pedophile conviction who likes to teach the local kids folk dancing. This mystery provides the central plot device of Top of the Lake.

Writer/producer/director Jane Campion has a whole lot more than mere mysteries on her mind though. While what happened to the girl, Tui (Jacquiline Joe), serves to move the story along, the show is really about its exotic setting, its cast of interesting characters, and setting a mood.

Elisabeth Moss plays Robin a detective from Sydney out on loan while she cares for her mother who is dying of cancer. She grew up in this rural area of New Zealand until she was gang-raped at 15 and moved away. That old life comes to haunt her present as she comes to terms with who she was, who she is, and who she is to become. It doesn’t help that, on the encouragement of her mother, she never pressed charges against her rapists, and one of them is still roaming around the town.

She rekindles a romance with Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), who was her high school sweetheart and who also happens to be the son of Matt. He did hard time in Thailand for drugs but is now clean and getting his life back together.

Her boss is Al (David Wenham), who generally runs things in town and is a lot darker and more corrupt than he allows Robin to see. Early on, we see him chummy with Matt and slowly we see how deep the corruption seeps.

A group of middle aged, damaged women have recently taken up residence on the mountainside. They are living in big, metal storage containers and are trying to resort their lives. They are led by the androgynous guru GJ (Holly Hunter.) They don’t seem to have much to do with the mystery aspect of the show, though they do add a lot of color. About halfway through, I kept wondering why they were even a part of the show, though with Hunter involved I knew they would eventually become important. I wasn’t wrong.

All of these characters are well fleshed out and acted. Moss especially is terrific, proving once again that while she might not have big star power she has great talent. And a remarkable ability to choose interesting characters.

Top of the Lake is a well-made, atmospheric, beautiful series. Its mystery is interesting, but it is its character development that keeps one watching. This ensemble of misfits kept me entertained, enthralled, and fascinated. It isn’t without its shortcomings though. There are numerous illogical plot developments, the entirety of the police force seems completely incompetent, and the concluding episode goes so far off the rails as to almost completely ruin the entire series. I suspect if one is unable to suspend disbelief very well, or gets riled up about internal inconsistencies, then this show will drive you crazy.

But I rather loved it. What it lacked in believability, it more than made up for in artistic merit and heart.

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Mat Brewster

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