Top of the Lake by Jane Campion

Last May I helped organize a conference in my university and after talking about our research fields I was recommended two TV shows for the crime lover in me: Top of the Lake (2013) and The Bletchley Circle (2012). One of the things that called my attention was that Top of the Lake was written and produced by Jane Campion whose movie The Piano changed something in non-sexist representation of women. So, as soon as I got home I got Top of the Lake and started watching it. Beware! This review contains some minor spoilers.

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To sum up the main premise, I would only say that detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) moves back home to New Zealand to spend time with her mom, who suffers from cancer, and ends up investigating the pregnancy and posterior disappearance of Tui, a local a 12-year old girl. These are the events that set the action in motion and, as the series progresses, new information is discovered about both Robin and Tui. I think this structure of a case taking up a whole and only season is becoming more and more fashionable because the audience get to know and become familiar with the characters. As a consequence, the detective becomes a central character so that the writers and the actors/actresses can explore a human psychology more deeply. This allows for more complex and realistic portrayals of investigators, both men and women. In Top of the Lake, Campion explores Robin’s sexuality, mind, psychology and body, something that is not so common on TV crime fiction where investigators are mere tools to solve the crimes. She is a daughter, a fiancée, a girlfriend, a detective, a friend, a native and an outisder, all at the same time. But above all, she is a woman and Campion will center on the joys and perils of this.

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Elizabeth Moss as Detective Robin Griffin

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Detective Robin Griffin

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Robin talking to Tui: she was the only one who understood Tui and fought for her.

But, despite this amazing main character, I had quite a few problems with the series and I have been waiting for weeks to write this review because I cannot make up my mind about it. If I ask myself: “Elena, did you enjoy the series?” I would say that I did, from a crime fiction point of view. Robin was also a masterfully written and performed main character, quite different to what we are used to see on TV nowadays. And the scenery? That was amazing! Check it for yourselves:

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Dart river valley.  Rees-Dart Track in Mount Aspring National Park, NZ

However, I think I am missing something, or maybe I am trying to over-analyze a good crime TV show as a masterful, feminist and life-changing production. Along with the case we are presented with a group of women who moved to a land called “Paradise” to heal themselves from what I would broadly call the patriarchy. They are divorced, they are abandoned, they are what society would sadly call “crazy bitches/witches”. Throughout the series I fell in love with their leader, GJ (Holly Hunter), because she was androgynous, strong and opinionated. However, does a female character need to be like that to be interesting? And what about the name? GJ? As in God/Jesus because they are in Paradise and she has disciples? I am not the best at figuring out religious connections, so I will leave this to those of you who are.

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Holly Hunter as GJ talking to her disciples

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The women’s camp led by GJ

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The entrance to Paradise on Toplake

Top of the Lake also makes a great effort to explore rape, rapists and how women are affected by this crime. Robin herself was the victim of a brutal sexual crime back in her teens and now she has returned home a grown woman, a great detective, and above all, healed and in charge of her life. There is no self-pity for her, she is aware of what she went through and condemns it, but she has moved on with her life and has tried to make the best of a horrible situation. It is not very often that rape victims are presented like this on TV. I am a huge fan of Law and Order: SVU and although they made a great job at exploring rape, victims are usually presented as shocked and weak, but doing the right thing: denouncing their rapists to the police. But not here: Robin has gained back agency: it is her life and she proudly claims it after the attack.

And, finally, patriarchy, sexism, classical male values and brutality are embodied by Matt (Peter Mullan), Tui’s father. He represents everything that is wrong with how society raises men with men’s values in a classical way. I was made sick by everything he said, everything he did and every place he stood at. Campion also makes him a complex character showing how he was raised and how he has raised his two adult sons, but she never portrays them as victims.

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Matt’s sons at their typically male house

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Peter Mullan as Matt

So, I do not really know what more to say about Top of the Lake. It is a good TV show and it makes a different with women’s representation is these new productions. After the women’s representation fiasco of True Detective, I think it is great to see that women have a place on crime TV shows.  But, I do not see it as the masterpiece that everyone says it is. Both Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter gave standout performances and I do hope they are recognized for their work.

Have you seen it? If so, what did you think? Here are some questions that helped me think and are still unanswered (spoilers):

  • Why is Robin running away from her fiancé in Sydney?
  • Why does Robin’s mother tolerate her partner’s violence against her?
  • GJ’s camp means a return to nature, a feminist idea born in 1970’s France and that, broadly speaking, associates women with nature. Why did Campion use this idea to, finally, discard it in the very last episode?
  • Related to the previous question: Why is Tui’s birth in the forest presented as positive?
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12 thoughts on “Top of the Lake by Jane Campion

  1. Keishon says:

    Excellent summation and insight, Elena. I watched the series and felt it was really good but a masterpiece I wouldn’t label it. Moss was good as well as Holly Hunter. It’s been so long since I saw it that I don’t feel informed enough to answer those questions at end of your post. I remember the ending did feel abrupt and I didn’t much like it. Top of the Lake is just a different kind of series. Hopefully others will chime in.

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    • Elena says:

      Thanks, Keishon. And you just nailed it: Top of the Lake is a different kind of story. I should have thought about that… Because if True Detective was a typical crime fiction story, this one that excels at women’s representation is different, but not typical… And why didn’t I like it? Does it have to do with a different way (is there such a thing?) of story-telling? I’m… confused and thankful you made me think.

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  2. MarinaSofia says:

    Like you, I was intrigued by the series but did not greatly enjoy it. The men were all presented as unbearably selfish and brutish and I found Tui’s birth experience in the woods distressing. The women in GJ’s camp felt a bit like caricatures too.

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    • Elena says:

      I hadn’t thought of what would a men watching the series feel, so thank you for pointing that out! Like you, I didn’t like the birth scene, but I don’t like any of them (would love to hear some more from you, I think I read on Twitter you’re a mom?). And yes, the one who slept with Matt and kept repeating what others said drove me crazy, but I think Campion wanted her to stand for those women who do have a voice but no opinions in real life. Could that be?

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  3. crimeworm says:

    I saw this when it was on BBC 2 here in the UK last year and compared to most non-American tv (I believe it was a mixed production), I thought it exceptional, although the ending was a bit of a damp squib. I thought Elisabeth Moss, Holly Hunter and Peter Mullah gave great performances. Okay, it wasn’t perfect, but it was something different and at least the majority of the cast were women. The only other such programme is tripe like Call The Midwife!

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    • Elena says:

      It hasn’t been broadcasted in Spain yet, but I don’t see it as the kind of series that a Spanish audience would enjoy, it’s not the type of series that are success here!

      I totally agree with doing a different thing. I love that, but at the same time, I would like to think that I am not less critical of a production because it’s made by a woman/includes lots of female characters. I am an advocate for diversity and balance, but I still have doubts about Top of the Lake.

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  4. jessicabookworm says:

    I watched this last year when it was shown here on one of the BBC channels. I thought it was interesting and refreshingly different crime drama. And I agree it had some beautiful scenery and cinematography.

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  5. lonesomereadereric says:

    Hi Elena, really interesting to hear your thoughts about this. I think Elizabeth Moss was great in it. I have to admit I didn’t finish the series. After a few episodes I felt it was too broad in some ways and mixed about my feelings about it like you are. But I agree with all your points.

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  6. Anc says:

    In response to those questions unanswered…
    Well, I think that Robin ‘s mother tolerated abuse in a conditioned manner, the way that so many people do, not wanting to rock the boat, as it were. And Robin was actually looking at her life, in contrast to her mother and the way she was raised and rejecting the status quo: rocking the boat. On this issue, this fundamental way of being, mother and daughter portrayed opposites paralleling one another.
    GJ’s camp seemed to me as a simplification of life, more than a returning to nature… And with that simplification of life, GJ sought that for herself, following her own wisdom of putting on your own airplane mask first, and when it was clear to her that she needed to move on, to fully live her life, she did. She realized she got caught up in the drama of others lives, got too entangled, too looked up to as some prophet on a strange pedestal that she was not, and she moved with her body when she felt to. I don’t believe GJ thought she was some teacher, although she couldn’t deny she had wisdom to share, and I don’t think she wanted that teaching spotlight. So I don’t believe the idea was discarded, at the end…
    Also Tui’s birth in the forest, too me seems like the epitome of newness; a new era for a little girl that into womanhood, a new life born, a new life for mother and child away from the oppression Tui was born into, a symbolic moving on for Robin, and when Matt steals the child, only to be killed by his child, it just reaffirms the newness of the situation, a full step into the unknown.
    And finally, Robin turning from her fiancee in Sydney, seems to me like the beginning of her understanding that she is not who she thought she was, in theme with so much of her discoveries about herself and her family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elena says:

      Woha! What a wonderful analysis, Anc! To be sincere, I watched the series a long time ago and I d0n’t remember much. Will you be seeing season 2 this year?

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