Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Top of the Lake: China Girl? Read our spoiler-free review here.
So another season of Jane Campion’s visceral, moody and at times straight-up nasty Top Of The Lake has rolled on by us. And, once again, it’s been an experience. TV is rife with nasty stories set against moody, wind-swept backdrops (that’s usually the BBC’s entire roster from October until March), but we’ll go out on a limb and say there’s nothing quite like Campion’s. She paints deeply nasty, but entirely realistic characters, pushes narratives to the limits of sensitivity, while somehow never being unrealistic, and holds a mirror up to the world she’s polished to perfection.
As the events of this season have unfolded, from every heart-wrenchingly horrible moment (Mary’s night on the strip, every lingering close-up of Cinnamon’s body) to every skin-crawlingly repulsive one (each conversation had by the gang of bros in the coffee shop, Puss crashing the dance), you somehow remain unshocked. Because you’ve entered Campion’s world in this show – the real world, that a lot of us are lucky enough only to live near, not in – and you’ve accepted that your rules have gone out the window.
Robin, once again, has made an excellent guide. Elisabeth Moss grabs the role in every scene with hands like claws and she’s had the meatiest of delights to content with this season. At times, a ferocious animal, and, at times, cornered and preparing to strike, Robin is a decidedly feral creature, driven even more dangerous by the presence of Mary, contending with the equally feral nastiness of Puss and the icy tiger stepmother of Julia.
It’s been a cracker of a cast this season (with a great returning turn from David Wenham, reminding us of the menace of last season) and all brilliantly balanced – Gwendoline Christie’s Miranda has really come into her own as Robin’s equally fiery foil, a bundle of emotions dressed up in a further bundle of dangerous contradictions. Definitely smoking while pregnant (sort of), she talks nonchalantly about affairs, while, like Robin, nursing her own traumas and a troubled relationship with motherhood. She contrasts with Julia – another star turn (if a more fleeting one) from Nicole Kidman, who navigates the choppy seas of motherhood, while keeping her manicured hands clean.
If the theme of the women on the show is being mothers, once again the theme for the men is being utter douchebags. Even the supposedly pleasant men on this show – Robin’s brother, Mary’s stepfather Pyke – aren’t particularly nice guys, driven by sex, rather like the ‘nice women’ that they pursue throughout the show. But they are compared to Puss – monstrous and pretentious in equal measure – a fantastic caricature of the nightmare boyfriend no one’s parents want to have brought home. David Dencik is utterly repulsive (and therefore utterly compelling) in this part, manipulating a bizarre infatuation with Mary (the luminous Alice Egert, who continues to show promise) – or at least the idea of Mary, given what a cliche a professor falling for a student is – into his exhaustingly contradictory anti-capitalist worldview.
By moving the action from a tiny community – to allow bigger problems to play out under the expanse of the sky – to the dense and metropolitan Bondi, Campion has more fun grappling with the problems of the urban elite (as much as Puss has fun toying with them). The motherhood story that has dominated the show since it started now throws in the added financial and ethical twist of illegal surrogacy, which removes the horror of the prostitution storyline and allows us to meet the girls within that world on a level knowing there’s always a darker one that they could be pushed to inhabit. A room full of captive girls – once again – is waiting for us at the end of the line…
Along our way, there there are some excellent set pieces – the final manhunt for the real enemy (of course, honorable nice guy Brett, hiding in plain sight) is possibly the most tense scene on a crowded beach since Jaws. But following this, the various final climaxes – Robin’s reunion with Mary, the fallout of her encounter with Pyke and the fate of Puss and the girls of Silk 41 – feel frustratingly muted. Compared to last season, Season 2’s conclusion feels cruel and frustrating – like life, in a way that the last season didn’t. We hope Robin comes back, because even a nasty woman needs an actual happy ending.
Top of the Lake: China Girl is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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Photos: See-Saw Films / Lisa Tomasetti