Mini-Series Review: Top of The Lake (2013)

Update: The full series is now available on iTunes. If you like suspense, drama, and being kept on the edge of your seat, check it out. You won't be disappointed.

Written by: Jane Campion and Gerard Lee

Directed by: Jane Campion


Elizabeth Moss as Robin Griffin

Peter Mullan as Matt Mitcham

Holly Hunter as GJ

Thomas Wright as Johnno Mitcham

Jaqueline Joe as Tui Mitcham

David Wenham as Al Parker

Set in New Zealand, Top of the Lake is a seven-part miniseries currently airing on the Sundance Channel. The main story follows the plight of Tui, a 12 year old girl who is found to be 5 months pregnant after she wanders into the freezing waters of the local lake. After the local police determine that this is likely a case of child sexual abuse, a detective is called in to assist with the investigation. Robin Griffin lives in Australia but is originally from the Lake Top area and is home visiting her terminally ill mother. As the story progresses, it is also revealed that she has a fiancé and is currently thinking their relationship over.

Tui is the mixed race daughter of a local man, Matt Mitcham. Mitcham is known in the area for his hard way of living and his unorthodox ways of taking care of business. Two of his sons live with him and assist him when anything needs to be handled. When Mitcham discovers that there is a group of women living on some nearby land (called Paradise ironically), he becomes enraged. Apparently an agreement between his mother and the landowner had occurred some years before and Mitcham was of the understanding that the land now belonged to him. After taking the real estate agent out onto the same icy lake that Tui had ventured in, he hauls him behind the boat until the man has drowned. 

The women that have moved onto Paradise are a strange lot. Led by an androgynous GJ, they have all sought refuge from the world and their pain by moving into freight containers with only a mattress for personal comfort. Some have fled domestic violence while another is there after her beloved chimp attacked her best friend and had to be killed. GJ, at least up to Episode 2, is a mystery. The others seek her counsel but she is clear that no one is their teacher and that there is no structure to the settlement.

One day, Tui rides her her out to the women and spends the night. The next day, she leaves on horseback and isn't seen again. The horse is found riderless on a bridge the next day, and her little dog managed to make it back to her father's house.

As you can tell, there are many subplots in the series, but the central character is Robin Griffin, the detective. Her story begins to come out in small doses as her life intersects that many people involved in the various plots. As of Episode 2, she has yet to tie them all together, but it is only a matter of time. She is also dealing with some demons from the past when it is hinted that she was the victim of a sexual assault herself when she was younger. And to make matters worse, the men who assaulted her are still living there in the town. 

Lake Top, the setting for the miniseries, is a remote village cutoff from the rest of the world. In fact, one of the big things to hit the town recently is a cappuccino machine. As with all of the other plots, even the cappuccino machine is linked with Tui. It turns out that she was one of the young people to get a job there in an effort to learn a trade. The townsfolk would take kids who appeared to be on the wrong path and give them a job there in the hopes of getting them back on track. Tui had been caught shoplifting and other petty crimes before working at the coffee shop.

The local detective on the case is Al Parker, a handsome 30-something year old who may or may not have something to hide. I'm not quite sure what to make of him yet. At times he seems to be a good cop that might have a little crush on Robin, but at other times there seems to be something brewing beneath the surface. 

Elizabeth Moss is mesmerizing in this. Her performance is unlike any other that I have seen. I haven't always been a huge fan; I like her but wasn't sure how deep her talent went. Now I am. She could not be more different that the character she plays on Mad Men. She's tough, restrained, strong, and compassionate all at the same time. And that's not easy to pull off. If only for her performance, the series is worth watching.

But the other performances stand out as well. Peter Mullan as Mitcham is menacing and scary. When he is on the screen, you never know what he will do next. He's quite unpredictable. At once he will be caring for a dog with what appears to be unbridled affection and the next he shoots the dog without so much as a second's hesitation. He's clearly not a good guy, but I'm not sure just how bad he really is. 

David Wenham as the local detective is quite interesting. He's handsome, but not too handsome. He's serious, but not too serious. I think there will be much more of his story to unfold as we go along.

Holly Hunter is almost unrecognizable as DJ. She has long gray hair and wears men's clothing. She gives off the air of omnipotence and authority. At one point, when Tui asks her why she is there, she tells her "a calamity". When asked how she survived, DJ replies that she's not sure she did. She's a zombie. And that's how it is: she floats in and out of the scenes like the shell of a person. And it's amazing to me to watch someone so full of spunk and life as Holly Hunter play such a character. Not unlike the character she played in The Piano, also directed by Jane Campion.

The direction and production of the miniseries is quite cinematic. The pace is slow, determined, quiet, but not boring. The tones of the film are blues and grays which go well with the dreary lives of Top Lake's inhabitants. The viewer shivers as you can almost feel the dangerous iciness of the lake's water, reminded frequently that is has been known to kill in the past. The water is black, choppy, and unforgiving. Only a moment too long would take a person away from their troubles.

Here you can see Jane Campion, Holly Hunter, and Elizabeth Moss discussing the mini-series:

I strongly recommend this miniseries. It's really not to be missed. I'm sure you can find it in your local listings, or if you're like me and you don't get the Sundance Channel, you can download it from iTunes here and throw a little love toward JollyBuzz.

Thanks for stopping by and getting buzzed! Let me know what you think of the show.