Thursday, September 12, 2013

Netflix Streaming Tip: TOP OF THE LAKE--Jane Campion/Gerard Lee/Garth Davis' study of power and the community, New Zealand-style

If you grew as quickly tired as I did of TOP OF THE LAKE, as viewed via the Sundance Channel (remember the old days when the whole point of cable was to provide commercial-free TV?), you should take another chance on this series now, as it has arrived on Netflix streaming, intact and with zero interruptions -- save those that separate the series' seven, approximately 50-minute episodes. The product of writer/
director Jane Campion, co-writer Gerard Lee and co-director Garth Davis, this is an alternately troubling and annoying six hours that may not leave you fully satisfied but will hold your interest, if only because it is so damn bizarre, full of crazy characters/situations, and for the most part exceedingly well performed.

Ms Campion, shown at right, is by now pretty much a staple of worthwhile cinema (with an occasional flub like In the Cut), who seemingly moves from genre to genre, while actually putting her own special stamp on each and thus pulling that genre out from under itself. In Top of the Lake, which brings her back to the kind of TV mini-series she did more than two decades ago with An Angel at My Table, she again takes on the New Zealand "community" and its power structure. But while Angel showed us the evils of conventional society and mores, Lake hands us an utterly bizarre community cut off from normal civilization, inbred with evil and a power structure that seems to emanate from a single despotic family run by a supremely crazy man (one hell of a performance from Peter Mullan, below).

The ever-wayward plot has a young police officer (Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss, below, right, doing a fair NZ accent) returning to the town to visit her dying mother and becoming embroiled in the disappearance of a young girl (newcomer Jacqueline Joe, below, left) who appears to be trying to drown herself in that titular lake.

Moss's character reports to a nattily-dressed, attractive and occasionally corner-cutting boss (the always reliable David Wenham, below) who seems to be almost too good to be true and who clearly likes our returning-home detective.

As the plot thickens in all kinds of directions, we get a good dose of our heroine's back story, which involves everything from rape to parenting issues, and an old boyfriend (played with a fine dose of reticent sex-appeal by Thomas M. Wright) who now re-enters her life and complicates things in ways suspected and not.

Meanwhile, the search is on for that missing girl, by our heroine, her father (Mullan's character) and some of her friends. Oh, yes: there's also a big-time drug operation going on; a pristine little restaurant, the purpose of which is to train wayward youngsters (that's another talented newcomer, Luke Buchanan, below) to become waiters, baristas and restaurateurs; and all sorts of other odd characters, such as a supposed child molester, who are incorporated into the tale.

What about the white-tressed Holly Hunter (below, center) and her gang of strange women? This is perhaps the most remarked upon part of Top of the Lake, and yet it is also utterly inessential to the plot of the mini-series. But, boy, it does provide some odd fun. Ms Hunter plays a bored guru to a group of sad and beleaguered woman who set up shop in the middle of some land, the ownership of which is, uh, somewhat disputed. (This leads to yet another plot line.)

Top of the Lake contains enough coincidence and nonsense to choke a large Kiwi. Things often happen so conveniently (or conversely, inconveni-ently) that you simply must suspend your disbelief. And yet the series is so chock full of the bizarre, the shocking and the unpleasant that you stick around, near-hypnotized by the evil on view. There are surprises afoot, right up until the second finale. And though the series does not neatly tie up all its loose ends, if you've been paying attention, they are indeed tied -- including the father of a certain character's baby -- if loosely.

Finally, Ms Campion and crew have delivered something that is not quite as new and original as it might initially appear. Many of the same "villains" -- sex, drugs, money, power -- are trotted out. Yet in its dark and slanted look at how power accrues in a small, cut-off community; how male trumps female, while something like polite, encouraging behavior increasingly disappears; and how the hypocrisy of society, even in as unconventional spot as this, deadens growth and life, the series does give us a view of end times, New Zealand style.

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