The BBC recently released on DVD its miniseries Top of the Lake. Airing last year in the U.S. over seven weeks on the Sundance Channel, the six-episode series follows Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men) as she investigates the case of a missing girl in the town where she grew up. This particular incident brings back memories of Robin’s teenage years, as secrets are spilled, and not everyone is who they appear to be.
Robin is a compelling character, even more so than the case she is working. She’s native to this part of New Zealand, but has horrible memories of a night after a dance, in which some boys treated her poorly. Unfortunately, those boys are still around, all grown up, and makes Robin tense and angry. Coming to terms with her feelings, for her rapists, for the guy she still likes, Johno (Thomas M. Wright, The Bridge), even though she’s engaged to someone else, and for her dying mother, make up Robin’s story.
Johno isn’t the only one interested in Robin. Her boss, Al (David Wenham, The Lord of the Rings), takes a shine, too, offering protection as well as love. Robin doesn’t return his feelings, however, and Johno does seem to let Robin be who she is more, so Al is never a true suitor for her affections, making for an interesting and atypical chemistry.
Johno’s family makes up much of the rest of the cast. His sister, Tui (Jacqueline Joe), is twelve years old and five months pregnant when Top of the Lake begins. When she disappears soon thereafter, she becomes the subject of Robin’s investigation. Who is the father? Where has Tui gone? How can such a young girl handle having a baby in her belly? And why does she wade into the cold lake?
One of the prime suspects for both being the father and for making Tui vanish is her father, Matt (Peter Mullan, Trainspotting). A cruel drug dealer, as shown right away in the first installment, Matt is prone to fits of anger and wants to control everybody and every thing in his life and in the town. He has a lot of kids, some he claims. He sees himself as an elder leader, but he’s really a scumbag, though how much of one is a question Top of the Lake answers little by little.
I really like how Top of the Lake develops its villains. Not just Matt, but others who are revealed as the tale plays out. Some are obvious, some are not, and it tends to be the less visible evildoers that are the worst. All seem authentically painted, more than just one thing defining their personality, and they have raw motivations that make sense, even as one does not agree with the characters’ actions.
Rounding out the cast is a group of women who live in shipping crates on the shore of a lake. Led by the cold GJ (Holly Hunter, Saving Grace), the place, dubbed Paradise, is a refuge for those who have been through tough times. They settle on land that Matt, while not owning, thinks he has a right to, and provide a haven for Tui and Robin at key times. Thus, they are central and important.
The settlement is an interesting one, with ever shifting rules and hierarchy. Just as one thinks they might have the dynamic figured out, it shifts and becomes something else in the next hour. This makes sense, given the loose leadership, and provides a glimpse at an uneasy anti-society, one that cannot possibly survive in stasis, and is doomed to ever be temporary. An important story point concerning this at the end seems inevitable in retrospect, but it’s hard to decide if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
What’s cool about Top of the Lake is that it doesn’t concern itself with a fully cohesive, linear narrative. It presents a bunch of varied individuals who look and feel like real people, follows them through a transformative time of their lives, and then concludes with finality by coincidence and circumstance. It’s not at all formulaic, though there are a familiar archetype or two slipped in, and presents something original and interesting.
Unfortunately, there are no special features in this release to examine the fine acting, intriguing writing, shocking twists, or beautiful landscapes. It’s just two bare discs with no extras, and is not even in HD. A miniseries like this deserves so much better than such a meager release. However, I’m grateful it has seen the light of day on disc.
Top of the Lake is available now.