Top of the Lake: an engaging crime drama that pushes females to the fore – box set review

Jane Campion's six-part series sees Elizabeth Moss deliver a stunning performance as an idealistic detective hunting for the truth in a male-dominated world

The first thing that grabs you about Top of the Lake is the scenery – the beautifully framed shots of the area surrounding Moke Lake on New Zealand's South Island. But beyond the vistas lies an intriguing and boundary-pushing story that is every bit as engaging.

Oscar-winning writer and director Jane Campion helms the six-episode mini series, marking her first work on the small screen in nearly 25 years. With films such as The Piano on her CV, Campion is renowned for pushing strong female characters to the fore, as well as boasting an eye-catching visual style and a tendency to veer toward the more esoteric end of story-telling. Top of the Lake is no different and sees Elisabeth Moss deliver a stunning central performance as an idealistic detective hunting for the truth in a male-dominated world.

Best known as Mad Men's Peggy Olsen, Moss takes on the role of detective Robin Griffin, who returns from her new home in Australia to care for her ill mother but becomes wrapped up in the case of a missing – and pregnant – 12-year-old called Tui. She plays the part with class and subtlety, hinting at secrets that caused her to leave her small town and dive headlong into a harrowing case. The role was reportedly offered to Anna Paquin, with whom Campion worked on The Piano, but Moss's performance could surely not have been topped.

As Top of the Lake rolls out across the mountains and lakes of Queenstown and Glenorchy, Griffin's back story also unfolds, and we begin to learn more about why she is so determined to track down the missing girl.

To do so, she must battle the old-fashioned attitudes of the local police – men like alpha male detective Al Parker, who has little sympathy for the delicacies of the case. In fact, men don't come out of this series looking very good at all. Take Peter Mullan's Matt Mitcham, Tui's father – an angry and violent drunk. As the head of the Mitcham clan, a rag-tag bunch of Neanderthals who run riot across the idyllic surroundings, he uses brute force as a language and leaves the viewer guessing just how evil he may be.

He soon clashes with GJ, played by Holly Hunter – a guru-like character in charge of Paradise, a female-only camp for victims of a community in which sexual violence is prevalent and the local police are at best incompetent and at worst vile criminals. The scenes involving these women and the shipping containers they call home are among the most memorable parts of this series.

It soon becomes clear that Griffin too has suffered serious trauma at the hands of men. Top of the Lake has been commended for its careful handling of rape and its results. This is a programme as much about these subjects as it is a crime drama. It may not be subtle – male characters are almost uniformly bad and women are their victims – but Campion clearly feels you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.


David Renshaw

The GuardianTramp

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