Top of the Lake (Season 1)
Joana Rafael
June 15, 2024

After an enigmatic opening sequence, Jane Campion’s television premiere of this six-episode thriller (each about 50 minutes long) finds a group of women, led by a mystical figure called JG (Holly Hunter), rolling out a shipping container caravan for a wellness retreat. “At the end of the road, at the end of the Earth, in a place [appropriately] called paradise,” the leader reveals in the series finale. A golden meadow in front of a small lake (Moke Lake) isolated in the Southern Alps, an hour away from the real paradise in Glenorchy, New Zealand. This is the setting chosen to create a community based on the principles of reciprocity, support and care, which also serves as a support structure for the portrayal of the traumas faced by the women throughout the series.

Here, the utopian connotations of isolation in remote spaces are rescued and the system of kinship between Men is confronted — a system based on a commodity-oriented economy (perhaps symbolised by the containers) and property, defining characteristics of patriarchal societies and the historical decline of women’s rights, including over their own bodies. The place takes on meaning as the narrative unfolds slowly but intensely over the six episodes, concentrating comic-tragic moments and crystallising dizzying life stories, as well as the majestic natural and visual environment that gives the series its weight.

The ‘paradise’ of Top of the Lake embodies the idyllic purity associated with unspoilt nature and the spirit of solidarity in political action, nurturing the idealism that drives the fight against male domination and intrigue — a web of plot twists. This is the only human place spared from the influence of the clamour and violence of the series' two main antagonists: Matt Mitchan (Peter Mullan), the local drug dealer who has corrupted the economy and psyche of the neighbouring town of Laketop (Glenorchy), which is dependent on him, and Detective Al Parker (David Wenham), representative of police paternalism and of the patriarchy.

At the centre of the narrative is Robin Griffin, brilliantly played by Elisabeth Moss, the detective leading the investigation into the rape and disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, Angel Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), whose relentless pursuit of justice exposes the moral and sexual abuse inflicted by male characters. She serves as the lens through which we perceive the insidious effects of the shadow of depravity and opportunism cast by masculinity that makes Laketop a purgatory. From Robin onwards, we delve into the complexities of the case — which are deepened by the memories and traumatic experiences of the detective herself.

Written in collaboration with Gerard Lee, with whom Campion had previously worked on Passionless Moments (1983) and Sweetie (1989), Top of the Lake is based on recognisable conventions of the police drama but develops a dialectical narrative structure that moves between a gripping plot and an in-depth exploration of the social and psychological dynamics of its characters. It revisits the figure of the double, a motif rooted in the history of cinema and characteristic of the partnership between Campion and Lee, with visual care and sustained attention to detail in plot, characterisation and text with regards to spaces and subjectivities. The correspondences between complete characters demonstrate the authors’ ability to interconnect them through various narrative elements, including themes of identity, duality and the human psyche, revealing dark and unexpected facets.

Filmed with director of photography Adam Arkapaw and co-director Garth Davis, Top of the Lake balances long-sequence and wide-angle shots of the mountainous terrain with close-ups of domestic spaces that appear as neglected spaces: normative and eccentric, but dark, disordered and messy, contrasting with the warmer, yellowish colours of Paradise and the bright colours of the shipping containers that make up the women's accommodation.

Dramatically, but also technically, the series reflects Campion’s cinematic approach and her relationship with gender dynamics (as in The Power of the Dog and The Piano). It upholds the feminist tradition, in line with the ideas of Luce Irigay and Helene Cixous regarding Christian theology, the phallocentric construction of women and the masculine economy of sacrificial love. Notice the names of the men in the Mitcham family: Matt, Mark, Luke and Johnno.

Top of the Lake is a contemplative and moving work, complex and reflective, executed with precision and a narrative that is touching and sensitive to the trauma experienced by women and children. It mixes elements of drama, mystery and horror (recurring abuse and violence) with social commentary and an intense exploration of emotions, where desire can be understood as a longing for paradise, a union more just and free from the bonds of masculinity. The series uses a careful composition of striking images underpinned by a minimalist melody that creates a strong emotional and aesthetic impact.

Joana Rafael

Joana Rafael is an architect and researcher. She focusses on (questions of) ecology, human geography and natural sciences, encompassing contemporary culture, media studies, art and technology, and reflecting on the limits of infrastructure in relation to the functioning of terrestrial systems. She completed a PhD in Visual Culture and a master’s in Research Architecture, both at Goldsmiths (London), and a master’s in Urban Architecture and Culture, from the partnership between Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. She provides consultancy to architecture firms and teaches at Escola Superior Artística do Porto.

Batalha Centro de Cinema

Praça da Batalha, 47
4000-101 Porto

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