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Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl

Top of the Lake: China Girl, 2017, still from a TV show on SundanceTV. Episode 6. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss).

MATERNAL DESIRE surges through Jane Campion’s six-hour TV miniseries Top of the Lake (2013) and its sequel, Top of the Lake: China Girl (2017). In the original, Sydney-based detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) reluctantly returns to the wilderness town in New Zealand where, at age fifteen, she was gang-raped and impregnated. Her mother is seriously ill, and despite their prickly relationship, Robin wants to help. But she’s soon drawn into the investigation of the statutory rape of twelve-year-old Tui (Jacqueline Joe), who takes refuge alone in the dense mountain forest surrounding the titular lake so her father can’t force her to have an abortion. The landscape is vast and primal, and the twisted familial narrative that plays out here has the emotional weight of Greek tragedy—not least because incest is one of that genre’s hallmarks. Yet against the gruesome odds, Top of the Lake is a thrilling depiction of the triumph of a woman—actually one woman and two female allies—over the corrupt patriarchs who rule the town and profit from those they exploit in their piddling drug and pornography empire.

With Top of the Lake, Campion created the most groundbreaking and compelling series in the history of television drama. (And yes, my assessment has something to do with the fact that this rare story of mothers and daughters defeating the patriarchy speaks directly to me, as guyfests like The Sopranos [1999–2007] and Breaking Bad [2008–13] do not.) Both the original and its sequel were conceived by Campion, and although she coscripted—with her occasional writing partner Gerard Lee—and directed or codirected only eight of the thirteen episodes, this grand-scale work is the most mature enactment of the conflicts and desires evidenced in all her films.

China Girl lacks the epic visuals that were the correlative of the original’s drama, but its focus on corporeal and psychic interiority has its equivalent in the neo-noirish mise-en-scène and the way the narrative, like a nightmare, turns on reason-defying coincidences. The series begins with Robin’s return to the Sydney police force, where she quickly discovers that her success in busting a drug and porn ring in the small town of her birth does not insulate her from the sniggering defiance of the men she commands, or from her boss’s condescension. Moss’s performance as Robin, combined with Campion’s direction, provides a model for how to react in these too-familiar situations; it also shows what happens when prescribed behavior reaches its limits. No actress working today is better than Moss at delineating the inner life of a complicated woman or at taking action, whether deliberate or impulsive. Still, no actor can make or break a story: Top of the Lake is more irresistible with Moss than it would have been without her, but as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–) she can do nothing to counter that show’s manipulative terror-porn misogyny.

Robin returns to Sydney not only to work but to find Mary (Alice Englert), the daughter she gave up for adoption. To the dismay of the girl’s adoptive mother, Julia (Nicole Kidman), Mary is “engaged” to forty-two-year-old Alexander, aka “Puss” (David Dencik), a Marxist revolutionary poseur who teaches English to prostitutes in a Chinatown brothel, where he lives with many unkempt cats. When the body of a young Asian woman washes up on nearby Bondi Beach, Robin takes the case. It’s soon discovered that the dead twenty-something—dubbed China Girl—was pregnant. Her DNA, however, doesn’t match that of the fetus. Most disturbing to Robin, China Girl’s last residence was the very brothel—Puss’s apartment—where Mary hangs out. Is the daughter she’s only just met betrothed to a man who’s farming out prostitutes as illegal surrogate mothers? What should she (and Julia) do about it?

Despite the lurid and dangerous circumstances, much of China Girl hinges on familiar problems between a teenager claiming her independence and the mother who wants—in this case, two mothers who want—to protect her. Robin’s desire to connect with and defend the daughter who does not legally belong to her and Mary’s anger at being abandoned and her desire to live without parental restraint play out in slow-burn scenes in cafés, on street corners, or on the phone. (Englert, who is Campion’s daughter, does the best work of her young career.) At the very moment that Robin wants in, Julia, who’s separated from her husband and living with a lesbian feminist academic, wants out of a situation that has gotten beyond her control. (Kidman allows herself to be fabulously unlikable.)

Robin’s need to get the best of Puss is another manifestation of Campion’s long-standing anger at seductive male sadists. In the first series, Moss’s performance is matched by the electric Peter Mullan, playing the town’s self-appointed king, who has fathered children with half a dozen women, including, perhaps, Robin’s mother. Dencik’s Puss follows in his footsteps, confronting Robin’s rescue fantasy with the power of patriarchy, co-opting class struggle to his own privileged ends. No one comes out whole—which is not only the way of the world but an opening for a third season.

Top of the Lake: China Girl screened at the 70th Cannes Film Festival this past May and will premiere in two-hour blocks on Sept. 10, 11, and 12 on SundanceTV. A retrospective of the work of Jane Campion will take place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, Sept. 8–20.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.