Top of the Lake, BBC2, Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan, Holly Hunter PREVIEW

(L-R) Johnno [TOM WRIGHT], Robin Griffin [ELISABETH MOSS]. BBC2 Top of the Lake
No place like home – Johnno (Tom Wright) and Robin (Elisabeth Moss) Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★

BBC2: starts Saturday, 13 July, 9.10pm

Story: In a remote community on New Zealand’s South Island, a 12-year-old girl walks into the waters of an alpine lake. Saved before she freezes or drowns, she is found to be pregnant. The police are called and detective Robin Griffin liaises with the girl. The girl then disappears.

HERE’S A DRAMA that will dent New Zealand’s image as a pleasant society in the middle of paradise. Instead, the writer and director, Oscar-winner Jane Campion, shows us a brooding, menacing side of her homeland.

Tui Mitcham [JACQUELINE JOE] Top of the Lake BBC2
Why does Tui go into the lake?

This is a major, big-budget original drama for BBC2, and there’s a lot of international award-winning talent involved – Campion’s fellow Oscar recipient Holly Hunter is in the cast, along with Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss. There’s more Oscars among the exec-producers (Emile Sherman, Iain Canning), and there’s rising Aussie co-director Garth Davis.

So, that’s the fanfare out of the way. Next question – is it any good? Well, after a somewhat bewildering start, it is certainly more interesting and ambitious by far than many procedurals and dramas filling the schedules.

Elisabeth Moss leaves Mad Men far behind

The central mystery about a 12-year-old girl, Tui, who is spotted wading out into a freezing lake, is certainly intriguing. Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, the troubled detective who returns to the home she has escaped and is assigned to look after Tui, convinces as a tough woman who is far more confrontational than Peggy in Mad Men.

Then there are the men coming back into Robin’s life – ex-boyfriend Johnno, and Al Parker, fellow detective and Robin’s mentor.

G.J. [HOLLY HUNTER] Top of the Lake BBC2
Mystery woman GJ (Holly Hunter)

And Peter Mullan is a bull of a baddie, the local drug lord, Tui’s father and clan leader Matt Mitcham.

Holly Hunter as the mysterious GJ

The problem with the opening episode, the first of six, is that it throws a heck of a lot of story at the viewer. In addition to the characters mentioned, there is also the tribe of damaged women, getting away from it all to find some solace together by settling on land that Mitcham thinks should be his.

They are headed by GJ (Holly Hunter), whose mysterious air of detachment is incendiary to the male-dominated locals.

There is so much going on in the opener that each character could have a whole episode devoted to them. Tui is found to be pregnant. Who abused her? Was it Mitcham? Or one of his adult sons? Are the police corrupt? What is the secret of Robin’s past? Can GJ really see into people’s futures? Oh, and then there’s a murder…

A connection between Robin and Tui

Tui Mitcham [JACQUELINE JOE] Top of the Lake BBC2
Tui becomes the focus of the community

If Top of the Lake breathes a little after episode one to let us start to absorb a little of what’s going on, it should be a powerful, multi-layered story. The setting is an eye-opening vision of a landscape that is epic and beautiful, but primitive.

And the connection between Robin and Tui is clearly going to be key to the series’ story arc. Moss is a long way from Madison Avenue here, but she is boldly different as a woman discovering some harsh truths about the community in which she has a traumatic past.

Jane Campion has joined the exodus of storytellers who are moving from movies to TV,  which these days is the place to make textured dramas with three-dimensional characters. All of which should make Top of the Lake the drama event of the summer.

Luke Mitcham [KIP CHAPMAN], Matt Mitcham [PETER MULLAN] Top of the Lake BBC2
Troubled waters – Luke and dad Matt

Cast: Elisabeth Moss Robin Griffin, David Wenham Al Parker, Peter Mullan Matt Mitcham, Thomas M Wright Johnno, Holly Hunter GJ, Jay Ryan Mark Mitcham, Kip Chapman Luke Mitcham, Jacqueline Joe Tui, Robyn Malcolm Anita, Genevieve Lemon Bunny, Georgi Kay Melissa, Skye Wansey Grishina, Anne-Marie Alison Bruce, Sarah Valentine Prue, Robyn Nevin Jude, Calvin Tuteao Turangi, Lucy Lawless Caroline Platt, Darren Gilshenan Bob Platt, Luke Buchanan Jamie, Mirrah Foulkes Simone, Jacek Koman Wolfgang Zanic, Madeleine Sami Xena

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