When Top of the Lake had its debut back in 2013 the series managed to mesmerise audiences worldwide. A co-production of BBC in the UK, Australia and New Zealand alongside Sundance in the US, Top of the Lake brought top US talent such as Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter together with Australian David Wenham (Lord of the Rings) to create something quite special. Moss had made quite the name for herself in Mad Men as the strong-willed Peggy Olson but her lead role as Detective Robin Griffin won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries. Despite writer/director Jane Campion stating it was a one-off, no one was surprised when a second season was greenlit with the filming moving from New Zealand to Sydney, Australia.
Top of the Lake is much like Broadchurch in its stunning setting with beautiful views and dark mysteries lurking in the shadows. The first season told a tale of a young pregnant girl who went missing and Robin’s traumatic past driving her own career ambitions. Moss’ performance was vulnerable, bleak and yet there’s a slight glimmer of hope in the character. Griffin can’t change her own past but she will try to do whatever she can to prevent others from being hurt. The follow up China Girl has all the hallmarks of Top of the Lake yet Moss has said in interviews that it’s an even darker journey this time round. That’s hard to believe considering how miserable the original story got at times, so it will be interesting to see how the rest of the series lives up to her promise.
China Girl picks up a number of years later with Robin throwing herself head first into her work. She’s not afraid of any males that try to intimidate her or push into her territory and she constantly has a brave face on, yet there’s clearly something putting her on edge. Every so often someone will say something to break that facade and her mental state tips over to something more uncontrollable. You don’t need to have seen the first series but it helps to build up Griffin’s emotional state and why she is how she is, but Campion and Gerard Lee do a good job of painting a picture for any newbies on board. Family is again at the forefront of the story – Robin’s loss of her mother, a daughter given up years ago, and the mother and father desperately trying to keep her from slipping into a bad crowd. No doubt all these characters will clash eventually, but for the moment we watch their stories unfold towards an inevitable crescendo.
The daughter Mary is every bit as headstrong as both of her mothers, both adopted and birth. Alice Englert gives a well-balanced and believable performance as someone who wants to be decent yet is influenced by an older man who clearly isn’t good for her. Nicole Kidman as Mary’s adopted mother Julia is perfect as the challenged parent, loving to the last but clearly out of her depth. What Top of the Lake always does well is presenting relationships as believable and real, and this is no different. Whether you’ve been the defiant teen or the struggling parent, you’ll certainly find it relatable. Kidman was fantastic in her role in Big Little Lies earlier this year and China Girl looks to be another top class addition to the resume.
Of course at the heart of the story is a mystery drama element but that almost plays second fiddle to the main characters and the development of their relationships. With a dead prostitute washing up on a beach in a suitcase, Detective Griffin gets involved in the investigation and this will no doubt lead her down a predictably personal path, but Moss and co are so good in their roles that it almost doesn’t matter. Occasional light relief is provided by Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie as Constable Miranda Hilmarson. Thrones and Star Wars viewers will know she’s fully capable of kicking serious behind so hopefully she’ll get something meatier to work with over the rest of the series. Christie and Moss make for a likeable duo on a show where most characters are complete arseholes, so it’s nice to have someone to root for.
Overall it seems like China Girl is on course to be another winning series, especially for Moss who is already having an exceptional year with The Handmaid’s Tale. New additions Kidman and Christie are more than up to the task and it will be interesting to see how their characters develop. BBC have been kind enough to put up the entire series on iPlayer to fulfil your binge-watching desires in this Netflix dominated era, and it looks like Jane Campion and Gerard Lee have managed to replicate their success once again.
Prd: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Jane Campion & Philippa Campbell
Written by: Jane Campion & Gerard Lee
Dir: Jane Campion & Ariel Kleiman
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman, Gwendoline Christie, Alice Englert, David Dencik & Ewen Leslie
Country: UK/Australia/United States
Top of the Lake: China Girl is available on BBC iPlayer.