Sitting down to watch The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, it was difficult not to smirk at the ad for New Zealand tourism that popped up before hand. NZ is Middle-Earth, after all, and the ad is keen to remind you that the Peter Jackson films are the biggest cultural export of any southern hemisphere nation in decades. Not so with the equally beautiful and New Zealand made mini-series Top of the Lake. In the award-winning mini-series New Zealand's Queenstown and surrounding areas are similarly hi-lighted, perhaps even more so than in Peter Jackson's films. Except for elves, dwarves and hobbits, in Top of the Lake, New Zealand is over run by drug lords, mature nudist colonies and a corrupt, misogynistic police force. It's hard to make a tourism ad out of that.
Nevertheless, Top of the Lake is worth a watch. I haven't been as applauding of Jane Campion's films in the past. Although well-made, they're simply not to my taste (this is in deep contrast to my friend and co-host Carley Commens from House of Nerd, who I distinctly recall taking to Keats with zeal after watching Bright Star). Top of the Lake serves Campion well as it sees her play with and pleasingly subvert the crime genre.
The story opens with a 15-year-old girl attempting to drown herself in a freezing cold Alpine lake. You later learn she's five months pregnant, and by the end of the first episode she's missing. Elisabeth Moss' character, a police detective, is brought in to help out an otherwise suspicious police force, headed by David Wenham. Moss has gone on to receive a Golden Globe for the role. Her performance is compelling and a massive achievement, although, annoyingly, her accent is two vowels away from being dead on. Wenham's performance is absolutely masterful.
This isn't Underbelly, it's thankfully missing any glamorous take on crime and is distinctly mature and considered. Top of the Lake's darkest moments are surprising, but not nearly as shocking as its humour. Peppered within the churning darkness of the story is a very interesting satire on our gender-binary culture. Part of the story centres on a women's retreat, founded by an eccentric millionaire guru called 'GG' (wonderfully played by Holly Hunter), who takes to shipping containers in the gorgeous 'Paradise Valley' to dispense advice to fairly moronic and desperate middle-aged women. It's the most compelling point of the shows early chapters.
New Zealand is photographed beautifully, and I now desperately want to visit. Campion unapologetically adds silence to her stories, and it sometimes means the the narrative momentum suffers. Here, the gaps are filled with absolutely shattering scenery. Scenes will frequently begin and end with silent snapshots of pinkish-blue landscapes, photographed perfectly. It gives the story a chance to breathe, and it adds a realistic weight to the momentum that less confident film-makers would add with music or unnecessary editing.
This is one of the most enjoyable crime stories I've witnessed in many years, and I recommend it. Top of the Lake's world is engrossing, disturbing and funny. And it's the best ad for New Zealand I've seen for quite a while.