If You Go Down to the Lake Today You’re Sure of a Big Surprise
After the opening episode of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, I wish it had been the insufferable GJ (Holly Hunter) who had ended up face down in freezing Lake Wakatipu. GJ is the guru who has led a group of vulnerable (and gullible) women running away from their lives and has set up “a half-way recovery camp for women in a lot of pain,” all of whom are hoping to find paradise in, well, instead, a place called Paradise. Their biggest pain, that I can see, is GJ herself, a controlling, humourless, self-important, guru-like figure who all the women revere.
Top of the Lake deals with some unpleasant subject matter, when a pregnant twelve-year-old goes missing but this is not a thriller or even a crime drama. It is a slow, (sometimes too slow) unravelling mystery that features as light relief the group of daft, flaky, misguided women who came to seek spiritual enlightenment in a place called Paradise and who promptly spoil Paradise by littering it with shipping containers. My favourite so character so far has to be Anita, (played deadpan by Outrageous Fortune lead, Robyn Malcolm). Anita has come to the camp because of “chimp issues.” I liked watching the reaction of the Kiwi blokes as Anita delivers a monologue about having to get the chimp castrated after it attacked a friend and then when it still didn’t behave itself, having to have it put down. The young bloke looks at her, exasperatedly and asks, pointedly, “was he your boyfriend or your pet?” and by Anita’s lack of response, confirming that she and the chimp were indeed getting jiggy.
Top of the Lake is the latest example in the New Zealand gothic genre, or ‘cinema of unease,’ (a term used by the actor and film-maker Sam Neill) to describe the kind of film-making in a country that on the outside looks like a perfect paradise, but scratch the surface and you find child abuse, domestic violence, murder and suicide. From the works of film-maker Vincent Ward to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, the New Zealand gothic is very much a force in New Zealand cinema (and now television).
The idea that There is Something Wrong in Paradise is a view of New Zealand that may come as a shock to eager visitors as it is, understandably at odds with the one peddled by the tourism industry. But for locals, it’s an accepted part of living in this little corner of the world. If you hang around long enough to admire the view at many a tourist spot, stay there long enough and a friendly local may sidle over to you and then proceed tell you the story about the bloke who was pushed over the falls because he owed money to the local biker gang leader and when his body was finally washed up further down the river he was wearing a three piece suit and had an orange stuffed in his mouth.
I like the way that feminist Jane Campion has intentionally made members of the women’s camp funny (I certainly hope that was intentional and that I’m not the only one laughing here) but oh dear, I just wish, especially after the success of a book like Gone Girl, that she would, for once, be a little bit less predictable with the gender politics, and have a half-way decent, sympathetic bloke in there somewhere?
The woman you really have to feel sorry for though, is visiting detective Robin Griffin (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss). Not only does Robin have a difficult mother to deal with, she has to negotiate with GJ, Creepy Queen of the Sisterhood, deal with the missing girl’s wholly dysfunctional father Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) and a bunch of sexist colleagues. Oh, and her boyfriend is putting pressure on her to finish up the case as soon as she can – presumably so that she can get home and cook him his dinner.
If you’re heading off for a holiday in and around the Queenstown lakes, be wary of accepting offers of fishing trips from strangers. Because whichever direction that Top of the Lake takes in the next six episodes, you can be sure that the iconic Queenstown Lakes region will never look so sinister again.