If poetry could be filmed Jane Campion would be the woman you’d ask to do it. She’s been rightly fawned over since her career began thirty years ago, and is one of the four women who’ve been nominated for a Best Director Oscar and the only female director to win a Palme D’Or at Cannes.
Top of the Lake was created, written, and two of the episodes were directed by Campion so if this is your first introduction to her then you’re in for a treat. She takes a formulaic idea – a woman investigating the disappearance and abuse of a young girl – and makes it into something so unique every other show like this you see for the rest of your life will be a complete and utter disappointment. At the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious, Top of the Lake is the closest thing to art on TV you’re going to see this year. And just think; this is only the first episode. You have six more to fall in love with!
So just what’s it all about then? Well, that won’t be all too clear from the first episode. But to give a general overview, police officer Robin (played by the always fantastic Elizabeth Moss – Mad Men, Get Him to the Greek – now with added Kiwi accent) has to investigate the disappearance of Tui; a girl who is twelve and pregnant.
It’s hardly the most original concept when it’s on paper but when Campion puts it through her magical lens it comes out looking like nothing else. The opening shot of Tui walking into the lake is particularly beautifully; every scene looks like a painting. The direction is beautiful and makes creating a realistic but dreamlike atmosphere seem as easy as tying shoelaces. That’s not to say the cast aren’t doing their fair share either. Excellent actors with an equally excellent director, all played out in some stunning locations. What more could you need on a Saturday night?
It looks like abuse, family, and gender are going to take centre stage here. But with so much stage to set, a few scenes do feel a tad rushed. However, that’s a minor complaint in altogether excellent first episode. All of the characters have some kind of dysfunction in their life – Robin’s mother has an abusive boyfriend, Tui’s father and brothers are brutal and cruel, and a strange mystic called GJ has rolled into town with her band of emotionally battered women; all of this against a backdrop of casual violence and misogyny. In less brilliant hands this would be a dreary show that’d leave you feeling like nothing will ever be alright in the world again, but there are a few touches of humour that really work. Look out for a story involving a woman and her pet gorilla. It’s even better than it sounds.
Top of the Lake is arguably the best show on TV right now. It’s equal parts character study and drama, with just a little bit of comedy thrown into the mix. If you need convincing that TV can be as good, if not better, than movies then this episode will do it. If there’s one thing you need to watch this year, it’s Top of the Lake. Catch it on Saturday evenings on BBC Two, or watch on BBC iPlayer.