Review: Jane Campion’s ‘Top of the Lake’ a riveting long-form mystery

I have no idea if Jane Campion, co-director and co-creator of Sundance’s “Top of the Lake,” has ever seen “The Killing,” or the Danish series that inspired it. But the mystery miniseries certainly plays like she watched a few hours of the AMC version, leaned back in her chair and said, “Let me show you how it’s done, kid.”

It’s underselling “Top of the Lake” to simply say that it’s everything “The Killing” mistakenly thinks it is – a haunting, meditative police procedural that takes advantage of its running time(*) to delve deeply into its characters, their world, and the way the crime impacts everyone involved – but it’s hard not to keep noticing the similarities, and the way that “Top of the Lake” so perfectly fits the description that Veena Sud uses to discuss “The Killing.”

(*) In New Zealand, the series is being broken into six one-hour installments, some of which will air together. Sundance, which debuts it tonight at 9, has edited it differently. All the material is presented in the same order it was meant to be in, but there are seven total segments (two air tonight, and another two air together for the finale), each slightly shorter than the original, which means they sometimes start or stop in odd places.  

So again we have a crime involving an underage girl in a location defined by the weather – here a gorgeous but remote New Zealand mountain town in winter, where a 12-year-old named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) disappears shortly after police discover she’s pregnant. And again we have another female police detective (Elisabeth Moss from “Mad Men,” working with a Kiwi accent) who has a dark past that leads her to get too involved with her cases – and, for good measure, she even has an out-of-town fiance complaining about how long it’s taking her to close this case and get back to him. It doesn’t rain every seven minutes, but I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least if Joel Kinnaman had ambled into the frame at one point to ask Moss if he could bum a cigarette. 

The pace is actually even slower than on “The Killing,” both in terms of how much plot happens in a given episode and how long the case takes to investigate(**). But because it’s a shorter, self-contained story, and because Jane Campion (here working with Gerard Lee on scripts and taking turns behind the camera with Garth Davis) is a great writer and director, the character work is rich and devastating, the atmosphere hypnotic, and the overall storytelling so good that even if the mysteries hadn’t been resolved, I wouldn’t have felt like my time was wasted. With “Top of the Lake,” who done it ultimately isn’t as important as the toll the crime takes on our heroine, and on the community around her.

(**) The miniseries’ biggest flaw, actually, is its difficulty conveying the passage of time. There’s a scene in a later episode where Moss mentions two months have passed since they opened the case, when to me it seemed like a week at most.

Let’s start with Moss, who’s sensational as Robin Griffin, a native of this town who’s on leave from her job in Sydney to visit her ailing mother. The case dredges up memories of why she had to flee to Australia, and while the idea of the cop (or doctor, or lawyer) who finds a personal parallel to their latest case is one of the oldest clichés in the business, Moss makes Robin’s pain and rage feel so personal and specific that it never felt like something I’d seen a million times before.

Moss is ably supported by a cast that includes Peter Mullan as Matt Mitcham, local drug kingpin and the missing girl’s aging, violent father; David Wenham as Robin’s temporary partner, and a man whose loyalties seem torn between the case and the seedy charisma of Matt; Thomas M. Wright, Jay Ryan (from the CW’s “Beauty and the Beast”!) and Kip Chapman as Matt’s three sons (one good, two bad); and Holly Hunter as GJ, a cryptic woman running a commune on a pristine part of town called Paradise that Matt Mitcham, of course, considers his birthright.

The commune scenes are weird – one of the earliest involves a woman delivering a monologue about the chimp she used to share a bed with, prompting one of Matt’s sons to ask whether it was “your boyfriend or a pet” – and for the longest time feel simply like an excuse for Campion and Hunter to reunite 20 years after they won Oscars together for “The Piano.” But Hunter, wearing a long grey wig and rarely rising from the armchair GJ keeps as her one piece of furniture, has an arresting physical presence. And as the series moves along, it begins to make sense why so many of the women in the story find themselves seeking the counsel of GJ, even though her advice rarely seems what they expect. We’re told early on that GJ is “in a different mental state,” and after the harsh experiences each character has been through, a different mental state seems to be the only way to survive.

And Hunter’s corner of the series ultimately works because “Top of the Lake” has so much to say about the way we live and the way we deal with trauma – be it rape, child abuse, or even something as typical as the loss of an elderly parent. It’s an odd subplot, but this is an odd miniseries at times – one that tells a mystery story, and tells it well, but that layers so much humanity and emotion and dread on top of it.

It’s a remarkable miniseries, and one that I eagerly dived into. (The imagery alone is incredible, with one scene on a rocky cliff a reminder of how nature can be so beautiful and terrifying at once.) It also speaks to the value of the miniseries genre, where you can tell a story, tell it well, and get out before you’ve created too many problems for the sake of perpetuating the franchise. “The Killing” had many, many problems, but I at least wonder what it might have been like if Sud had been told it would begin and end within those original 13 episodes.

But that’s a hypothetical. This is an absolute: “Top of the Lake” is great.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at