A View from the Top: A Review of Sundance Channel and UKTV's Top of the The Lake

This article contains episode 1 spoilers

This past January, the Sundance Film Festival did something it has never done in its 30-year history. It premiered an entire television series. The event, and what is says about the death of cinema and the ascendance of the small screen, is a mere footnote to the series itself. The festival aired the Internationally-produced Top of the Lake in its 7-hour entirety... with a lunch break.

There is no television that this author can recall, and indeed no cinema either, which compares favorably to Jane Campion’s Masterpiece. The woman who brought us The Piano, along with Holly Hunter, Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and the great Scottish actor Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Session Nine) has produced a program that simply has no peer.

.The series takes place in Laketop, a fictional backwater of New Zealand. In the series opening, we are introduced to Tui, a twelve-year-old girl who we quickly learn is pregnant. We are also introduced to the lake itself. Throughout this series, the lake and its surrounding wilderness dominate the action like a predator dominates its prey. The series opens with Tui walking into and standing chest-deep in its dark, cold water. It is a metaphorical walk into the lion’s den that will propel us on a story where the human element present must fight to survive.

It does more than just survive. By the end of the journey, the population of Laketop have taken us where our souls fear to tread. They have accompanied us and shown us how deep and dark our own waters can be.

This program is so outstanding, it is difficult to review. Where to begin?

Jane Campion received an academy award nomination for The Piano. She has been hung with the “women’s cinema” label ever since. Here, she has created something transcendent. She manages to deftly blend the beauty and overwhelming power of the setting and the intensely personal nature of the story told in its midst.

The women in the story are portrayed from start to finish with both precision and an almost unnatural ease. Holly Hunter leads a female cadre of truth seekers who have just dropped anchor in an area called “Paradise”. This will bring her in direct conflict with local boss Matt (Peter Mullan). Right off the bat, this conflict will cost one character his life at the hands of the lake.

At the programs core is Jaqueline Joe’s Tui and Elizabeth Moss’ Robin. When we meet them, they could not seem more different. One is a young school girl who has obviously been the victim of a heinous crime and the other is a successful, empowered woman who has made her career in a man’s field. As the program unfolds, we will find out all they have in common. Tui is returned to her home by the local police and promptly vanishes. The search for her will take us through a tale of corruption, betrayal, good and evil, love and hate. Robin, desperately wants to believe that she is still alive, somewhere in the vast forests and mountains that project out from the water. As a police detective, her job is to find the truth. She will learn how liberating, how heartbreaking, and how futile a search for truth can be.

Peter Mullan, The Lord of the Rings’ David Wenham, and new-comers Thomas M. Wright and Luke Buchanan could have easily been overshadowed by their co-stars. They are not. Their characters each go through their own trials and meet them with very different results.

Campion walks the line of suspense and revelation perfectly. Every episode builds on the last and prepares the viewer, without giving anything away, for the one to come. When it reaches its climax, we find ourselves lost in the wilderness. Hearing words of wisdom from Holly Hunter’s GJ, ringing in our ears. She tells us it’s okay to be lost. She tells us it’s okay to die. Campion shows us that while nature may be the lion, and we the gazelle, it is the prey that is at the heart of the predator’s world, not the other way around. In any natural wilderness or any of our own making, it is we that animate the landscape. We are the brightest colors, the darkest shadows, the loudest cries and the softest whispers.

Anyone who loves art, will love this series.

Which brings us back to the Sundance Film Festival. According to one report, Holly Hunter was standing in line for the bathroom along with everyone else during the first of two intermission. Her and Campion later ate sack lunches in their seats. The public nature of cinema can be so limiting. Watching this program at home, in the intimacy of my room reminds me of reading a great novel. It has that “you cannot put it down” feel to it.

There is a liberation of the small screen that is happening before our eyes. Gone are the days when television existed in a tightly constrained world of major broadcasters and their corporate sponsors. The funding of this series is a case and point. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation was the original backer, along with the Sundance Channel. It’s been reported that they pulled out when Moss was cast in the lead. A few years ago, that would have been the end of it. But there are so many outlets today, that the producers were able to find a replacement. UKTV, a subsidiary of the BBC stepped into the breech and deserve much credit for doing so.

Perhaps the first half-century of Television can be likened to the era of the studio system in cinema. In both periods, the product was often mediocre. In cinema, it was only when the artists were given control of the canvass that they were able to produce the truly great cinematic works of the sixties and beyond. Television appears to be following in that mold. In America, there were only 3 networks, once. Then there were four. Then there were four plus HBO, Then there was Showtime, AMC, BBC America, FX. We see the blossoming of the Scandinavian television industry. Where once they imported from us, now they are producing their own works of the highest quality. The BBC, which has always been a place to find the boundaries of the medium pushed beyond its limits, has been joined by ITV and Channel4. Whether a program lives or dies is no longer reliant upon a broadcaster giving it the go ahead. There are so many satellite and cable outlets... and, of course, there is the internet.

Like anything experiencing growth, there will awkward moments. Top of the Lake is not one of them. It is art at its most sublime. It is great literature. It is beauty, horror, madness. It is exactly what fiction is supposed to be.

Top of the Lake can be purchased in its entirety from Itunes.

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