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TV Review: Brilliant, Captivating ‘Top of the Lake’ with Elisabeth Moss

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CHICAGO – Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake,” premiering tonight on The Sundance Channel, is one of the best things you’ll watch on TV this year. It’s a stunning accomplishment that gets deeper, more complex, and more fascinating as it goes along. With spectacular work by Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”) and typically fantastic turns from Peter Mullan & Holly Hunter, this is a must-see.

HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 4.5/5.0
Television Rating: 4.5/5.0

A 12-year-old girl named Tui Mitcham begins walking into a freezing lake in the community of Laketop. She is rescued and it is learned that she is five months pregnant. When asked to name the father, she simply writes “No one.” A local detective with a dark past of her own named Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is brought in to investigate the pregnancy and support the girl but becomes involved in something much greater when Tui goes missing.

Just before she disappears, Tui makes contact with a new group of women who happen to be taking up residence on land that Tui’s father, a notorious drug lord named Matt Mitcham (the stellar Peter Mullan) considers his property. On this gorgeous expanse of flat land, a women’s support group, led by the seemingly detached GJ (Holly Hunter), has taken up residence. They sit around on a tract of land called “Paradise” and just seem to live there, not planning out activities but just being, which drives Matt Mitcham kind of crazy. The women of Paradise are clearly thematically designed as something that shakes up the entire world of Laketop. As you might imagine knowing Campion’s work, roles for women in modern society and rampant sexism in general plays a major role in “Top of the Lake.”

Top of the Lake
Top of the Lake
Photo credit: The Sundance Channel

Back to the mystery at hand (and, yes, part of the genius of “Top of the Lake” is that it is so easy to get involved in the other themes and characters without constant focus on the mystery…it’s more of a drama than a thriller) - where is Tui? Did her father kill Tui rather than face the embarrassment of a granddaughter to his teenage girl? That seems too easy. Was it the father of her unborn child? Someone else? Campion weaves a story in which it feels like there’s something dark and foreboding around every corner. In this part of the world in which people exist in wide open spaces (I love the fact that the women of Paradise are on flat land in giant, open trailers, always leaving visual space for the neverending horizon), there’s no room for secrets.

Top of the Lake
Top of the Lake
Photo credit: The Sundance Channel

The performances in “Top of the Lake” are all-around incredible. The two that steal the piece at the beginning (I’ve only seen the first pair of episodes, both airing tonight) are Moss and Mullan. No one should be surprised by the latter as he’s been one of our better character actors for years. He’s perfectly coiled here; a man who seems constantly on the edge of violent action and is fully aware of how that unpredictability can be used to get him what he needs. Moss is just as good, even if her accent is reportedly a bit shaky. She’s beautifully subtle in the way she navigates this testosterone-heavy world, realizing that she’s going to be one of the few people calling for justice for a 12-year-old girl who most male cops don’t seem to care about in the slightest. David Wenham and Holly Hunter are strong in the premiere as well. In fact, there’s not a single weak performance in the ensemble.

And credit to that goes to Campion and co-director Garth Davis. It will be interesting to watch something that very clearly feels like a 6-hour movie cut up into chunks on TV. In fact, the biggest flaw of “Top of the Lake” may be in its presentation. Most people don’t have Sundance Channel in HD (neither Xfinity or DirectTV carries it in 1080p) and the cinematography is beautiful (and I would argue an essential ingredient to the show’s success through the atmosphere it creates). And the telefilm could get clunky given how it’s not been conceived for commercial or episode breaks. I really wish that “Top of the Lake” had been released on something like Netflix — all at once, able to appreciate and admire without the structural flaws inherent in episodic television. Yes, my biggest complaint about “Top of the Lake” is that it’s too much like a great, epic feature film and not enough like a TV show. You won’t read that often in a TV review. “Top of the Lake” is not a typical TV show.

“Top of the Lake” stars Elisabeth Moss, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright, Holly Hunter, Jay Ryan, Kip Chapman, and Jacqueline Joe. It was written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee and directed by Campion & Garth Davis. It premieres on the Sundance Channel on Monday, March 18, 2013 at 8pm CST.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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