In an episode of “Top of the Lake,” Jane Campion’s darkly beautiful miniseries, one of the characters explains that, according to Maori legend, at the bottom of the titular lake there beats the heart of a demon. From what we’ve seen of the lake and the community around it, this fits right in.
The miniseries, which appeared on Sundance last year, stars Elizabeth Moss as a detective investigating the disappearance of a pregnant twelve year-old.
She grew up in this town, or so we’re told (Moss’s accent would suggest that she has just come there by way of a less than stellar dialogue coach).
She is aided by David Wenham’s “local” head of police, if by local we are meant to understand Sydney. Dodgy accents aside, both are serviceable leads, in the latter case definitely more than serviceable. I’ve always found Elizabeth Moss rather bland as an actress, but in this case a certain blank inscrutability does her good. Wenham is a fascinating creature, equally plausible as white knight and mustache twirling villain and every shade of grey in between. In this role he is both charming and repellent depending on the moment and from which angle you look at him.
Honorable mention should also be made of Holly Hunter’s turn as a guru whose ramblings tread the line between profundity and insanity. With her gravely voice and her usual ferocity, she owns each scene she gets.
The reception this miniseries has gotten from male critics has a patronizing thread to it, best exemplified by one critic’s joke in a list of best television of 2013 that this was a perfect show for people who used the word patriarchy on a regular basis.
Though “Top of the Lake” is a story about sexual abuse and misogyny, it is irritatingly reductive to write it off as a misandrist rant. Aside from the usual issue of writing off anything deemed a women’s story or women’s show, a reading this straightforward fails to grasp the twisted, dreamlike logic of the work. The New Zealand wilderness evoked by Campion is a primal and hostile place where, although the supernatural would not be out of place, the audience is not offered the easy out given by its spiritual forebearer, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”
That show’s explanation of demonic possession is actually comforting; we like to dwell on monsters but who are we kidding? Something would have to be pretty bad to outclass humans.