Top of the Lake review: Kidman is superb, and Moss is compelling

Jane Campion’s superb detective drama returns to BBC

A fabulously transformed Nicole Kidman,  plays a Germaine Greer-idolising feminist

A fabulously transformed Nicole Kidman, plays a Germaine Greer-idolising feminist

 

One of the qualities that set Robin Griffin apart in Jane Campion’s superb detective drama Top of the Lake, from 2013, was that this outsider had a nerveless ability to access guarded spaces.

In the first series, Elizabeth Moss was compelling and restrained as an Australian investigator of crimes against children who had come to New Zealand, partly to address her own problems, but mostly to flee them. Visiting her dying mother while escaping her fiancé, she was drawn back to danger as though by fate, drafted into the case of a missing local girl. As that story grew more sinister, and sometimes gently surreal, Griffin negotiated aggressively male police precincts and belligerent outlaw enclosures, an earth-mother cult compound called Paradise and the guarded intimacies of wary children. At the beginning of a new wave of detective dramas led by complicated women, Campion’s detective bore her own traumatic scars, making everything both acutely professional and achingly personal.

Four years later, in Top of the Lake: China Girl (BBC Two, Thursday, 9pm) Griffin’s work and her life are still barely separated. Stalked by the consequences of that investigation, she is back in Sydney, where the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years earlier has made grateful, disorienting contact, while the body of a young Asian woman in a suitcase washes up on Bondi beach. That a close connection between these two events doesn’t seem wildly far-fetched says something about Campion’s command of tone as director and co-writer (with Gerard Lee), where society’s broad sins and personal suffering move in lockstep.

Even in Sydney, Griffin is an outsider; a woman in bullish and mocking male spaces, but Campion maintains a nicely ironic streak when depicting the gender wars. In Gwendoline Christie’s constable Miranda, Griffin is reluctantly paired with an admirer of puppyish enthusiasm and Amazonian build. (In one touchingly comic moment, Miranda leaps down to the beach and earnestly extends her arms up to Griffin for a lift. Griffin walks wordlessly down the ramp.)

Elsewhere a cabal of computer geeks volubly assess the talents of various escorts, while sheepishly unable to speak coherently to a waitress. But nothing is quite as satirically lacerating as a family dinner between Griffin’s daughter, her adoptive liberal academic parents and her appalling paramour, a German pimp.

Here, a fabulously transformed Nicole Kidman, with cascading grey curls, plays a Germaine Greer-idolising feminist, now losing ground to alt-right nihilism and millennial indifference.

We are far from the lake, but mystery here is deep and wide; political, cultural and sexual. Griffin and Campion are well placed to get to the bottom of it. 

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