First look UK TV review: Top of the Lake: China Girl
Jo Bromilow | On 26, Jul 2017
There’s a bit of a chill in the air. We know it’s technically still summer, and will be for quite some time, but there’s something decidedly autumnal waiting in the wings. And nothing says autumn like the really good TV.
Top of the Lake took viewers (this one included) by storm when it burst onto screens way back in 2013. A whiff of Twin Peaks – combined with the trademark washed-out beauty that bears Jane Campion’s hallmark – permeated the air on a mysterious yet stunning backdrop in rural New Zealand, where Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) rolled into town, baggage in hand, to investigate the disappearance, and recovery, of an underage pregnant girl. Cue sex, violence, murder, a neo-feminist cult and a paedophile gang. Oh, and Faramir from The Lord of the Rings.
Season 1 of Top of the Lake was gripping, if at times hugely unpleasant, TV – and, if the opening few episodes of Season 2 (China Girl) are anything to go by, Jane Campion has really upped her game. This season sees Robin back in Sydney – after a year soul-searching and apparently running into some trouble with her beau from the season before – and armed with fresh baggage. And, pretty quickly, a fresh case too, as a suitcase containing the body of a young woman washes up on Bondi Beach. No names, no ID, no missing persons report. Robin, naturally, has a series of conclusions to jump to.
Stereotypes are a large part of Campion’s narrative in this show – her exploration of classic tropes around femininity, motherhood, masculinity and misogyny often veers into near-voyeuristic territory. And like all art to shock they’ve landed her in trouble; major criticism was heaped on the first season due to its gratuitous levels of violence against women. And this season is set to break Campion’s own record, holding a mirror up to the hideous patriarchy that run society and treading a razor-fine line between revulsion for art’s sake and a sick fascination that threatens to glorify its stars.
For this season has new stars. Nicole Kidman – going through her own version of a McConnaissance, if this and Big Little Lies are anything to go by – glides into frame as the adoptive mother of Mary (the underrated Alice Englert), Robin’s biological daughter (oh yeah, that old chestnut). She’s crackling with electricity (and not just from the backcombing that gave her that impressive hair) and ready to spar with Mary’s much older boyfriend, Alexander/Puss (David Dencik), a loathsome layabout and one of many caricatures of masculinity Campion serves up in the first few hours alone. Alongside a crew of internet café bros (there’s no other word for it), who seem to be a Reddit thread in human form, and Robin’s cohort of quietly sexist co-workers, it’s a pretty bleak line-up. But how many of these nasty men – all of whom have obvious ties to Sydney’s sex work industry – have known our China Girl?
Thankfully, Robin is here to get to the bottom of it, ably accompanied by Miranda (Gwendoline Christie, playing a milder Miranda Hart and delivering a surprisingly light touch to proceedings that makes all these bitter pills go down easier). A fellow career woman with her own ties to the case, her idolisation of Robin may go some way to breaking down the level of hostility that surrounds her and perhaps provide an additional essential female voice to drown out the male ones hounding Robin at every turn. Or perhaps this is another lost lamb for Robin to save, along with her wayward biological daughter.
It’s hard to know how to feel about recommending Top of the Lake: China Girl. There’s some hesitance in calling it ‘good TV’, because good TV arguably needs positivity and light-heartedness. Gwendoline Christie aside, there’s very little light about this show, even with sun-drenched Bondi as our backdrop. It’s dark, bleak, upsetting and very sad to watch. But it’s also incredibly well-crafted and boasts a host of female (white, admittedly) talent; Elisabeth Moss picks her roles impeccably and Robin Griffin is a gift of a part that she grabs with both hands. Top of the Lake’s sophomore outing is by no means going to be an enjoyable season. But – just like the first – it’s an utterly compulsive one.
Top of the Lake: China Girl is available on BBC iPlayer until 30th September 2017.
Photos: See-Saw Films / Lisa Tomasetti