It’s a little uncanny how much atmospheric overlap there is between Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set thriller, and The Returned, Channel 4’s French supernatural drama.
Both are set in small towns nestled in alpine surroundings, both open with a young girl apparently at risk, and both follow an unbeaten track off to the side of the familiar main roads of television narrative. They even both boast a lake, which may hide something untoward under its surface. But the crucial difference is that, so far at least, there’s nothing uncanny at all about Top of the Lake. If anything’s going to frighten you here it’s going to be ordinary people, and the one most likely to do the frightening is Matt, a wild-haired local patriarch who can silence a roomful of Kiwi hard-drinkers simply by walking through the door. When Matt’s 12-year-old daughter Tui disappears, shortly after it’s been discovered that she’s pregnant, it’s evenly balanced as to whether he’s the culprit himself or just a waiting doom for the person responsible. As played by Peter Mullan, you sense him to be capable of anything from the moment he appears.
Matt is masculinity concentrated into a kind of toxin, and he’s counterpointed in Campion’s script by two kinds of female principle. There’s an eccentric feminist refuge that installs itself at the head of the lake, presided over by Holly Hunter’s gnomic cult leader. And there’s Robin, a policewoman back in town to visit her terminally ill mother. After Tui’s disappearance, Robin, who specialises in child protection, is drafted in to help the local force, and slams head first into a distinctively antipodean brand of misogyny. Oddly, the drama both sledgehammers home the sexual confrontation and taps it into place with the lightest touches: “She hasn’t said anything... she’s tight as a clam,” says a policeman, when Robin finds Tui surrounded by three burly policemen in an interview, and his manner gives the metaphor a queasy undertone of sexual suggestion.
This is, we soon understand, a profoundly corrupt place, with hidden connections complicating the relationship between law-enforcers and law-breakers. It is also a place in which transgression is treated with casual indifference. Before the first episode is over, Matt and his terrifying sons have murdered a man almost by accident, simply because he crossed them by selling Paradise, the site on which the women are camped. And Tui’s abuse is treated with a brutal matter of factness. “She can’t get any more pregnant,” someone says offhandedly when Robin questions the wisdom of returning the girl to the family home. As Robin, Elisabeth Moss is quietly contained, harbouring some secrets of her own, you feel, but also giving us a distinctively female take on a traditionally male archetype, the civilizing outsider who rides into town to put things right. “You’re a long way from any help,” she’s warned at one point. “I am the help,” she replies. It’s a line you can imagine Clint Eastwood letting spill from the corner of his mouth like cigar smoke. She says it with a kind of quiet resignation that suggests that it’s always women who have to clean up. I’m hooked.
Alive: Rankin Faces Death – a Culture Show Special didn’t sound a terribly cheerful prospect: a documentary about the fashion photographer’s work in putting together an exhibition of photographs of terminally ill people. But it turned out to be joyful, full of laughter and wise accomodation. Among Rankin’s subjects was Diana Athill, putting Rankin right when he suggested that his own death was only really significant to him (“It’s going to be more important to other people than it is to you”) and the captivating Wilko Johnson, who spoke of his fatal diagnosis as if he’d won the lottery. He wasn’t frightened of non-existence, he said, he’d done it for a long time before he was born: “I’ve had 13 billion years of practice.”
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