The frosty skies and magnificent New Zealand mountains provided more than pretty scaffolding in the first season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: they informed the very heart and soul of it. Like the Tasmanian-based, mystery sci-fi The Kettering Incident, a darkly magical synergy bound, like bolts from a wand, the central location to the brooding ebb and flow of the narrative.
Top of the Lake: China Girl picks up where the previous season left off, after detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) busted a pedophile ring facilitated by a corrupt police officer (David Wenham). The location of the second season is switched to Sydney, substituting that mysterious, foreboding environment for areas around Bondi Beach.
Anyone who has frequented this neck of the lotion-tanned, exhibitionist-lined woods understands Bondi can have a certain soul-sucking effect. Perhaps this helps explain the discrepancy between the show’s first and follow-up season, because the mojo ain’t working this time around – and the very lifeblood of Top of the Lake feels as if it’s been drained.
There are still shots of impressive coastlines and vast bodies of beautiful water, consecrated by the Campion lens. But as I was watching this bitterly disappointing second series, riddled with plausibility issues, on-the-nose dialogue, heavy-handed messages, spurious characterisations and dubious dream sequences, I was reminded of a different body of the water.
I was reminded of the water Fonzie, that human emblem for leather jacket greaser coolness, cruised over in a classic 1977 episode of Happy Days. On jet skis attached to a boat captained by Richie (Ron Howard) Fonzie completed a dare and literally jumped the shark. This is where that popular turn of phrase originated, commonly used to describe a substantial decline in quality in a television program.
The opening moments of the first episode of China Girl begin promisingly enough, with an atmospheric, almost dialogue-free five minute stretch involving a large suitcase being pushed off a cliff. The man who does the pushing is Kym Gyngell, best-known in Australia as the Comedy Company‘s slow-speaking dolt Col’n Carpenter – an otherwise perhaps irrelevant fact, were it not that his appearance sets in motion a round of ‘spot the Australian comedian’.
The list includes Christiaan Van Vuuren and Lawrence Leung, playing a detective and computer geek respectively. Also, branching out into Australian comedy writer/directors, there’s a strong supporting performance from Clayton Jacobson (director of Kenny) as Robin’s boss, and a small appearance from Adam Zwar (writer of Wilfred and director of the Agony series).
Robin decides to reunite with her 17-year-old daughter Mary (Alice Englert), who she abandoned – in deeply trying circumstances – when she was 15. Mary’s adopted parents Julia (Nicole Kidman) and Pyke (Ewen Leslie) warn Robin that Mary is going through a turbulent period. Of particular concern is her relationship with a much older boyfriend, Alexander (David Dencik) who lives above a brothel and has some hand in running the place.
The very lifeblood of Top of the Lake feels as if it’s been drained.
One of the workers there has vanished. Robin is assigned to investigate the case: so, as they say, given Mary’s connection, This Time It’s Personal. Robin is partnered with Miranda (Gwendoline Christie, best known as Brienne of Tarth – the big, bulky swordswoman in Game of Thrones). The pair are almost comedically mismatched, though Campion and co-director Ariel Kleiman (the former directing two episodes and the latter four) aren’t intending to tickle any funny bones.
Lines such as “I care about women supporting each other” (episode four) tended to be implied in the original series; this time around they are underlined, with highlighter pen applied. Some messages about institutionalised misogyny and proliferate sexism pack a punch, but are undercut by crude characterisations and unconvincing scenarios. The brief return of a major character from the first season is, frankly, ridiculous – with a borderline laughable, burning-down-the-set confrontation more befitting of a scene from the new Twin Peaks.
Many of us had a chortle at the expense of Elisabeth Moss’ “Australian” accent in the first Top of the Lake season. For such a fine, force of nature, scenery-rattling performer (recently so good in The Handmaid’s Tale) she has missed the Aussie lilt and cadence by stratospheres. Perhaps the hostile reception to her voice first time around posed the question: keep it up, or improve? She kept it up.
But it takes a special kind of mismanagement to so badly under-use Nicole Kidman. The actor has a potentially powerful role – as a woman contemplating a profound disconnection with her daughter, while navigating life as a recently-realised lesbian. But the scripts (co-written by Campion and Gerard Lee) offer Kidman little scope; it’s the kind of performance that feels like it was shot in a few afternoons. Ewen Leslie, with more opportunity and a more interesting character trajectory, packs more punch.
Sparks of atmospheric chutzpah flare from time to time, but Top of the Lake: China Girl is a sobering affair. If Campion, one of the greats, can misfire so badly, so soon after the first – and absolutely masterful – season, then there are surely no guarantees or safe bets about anything. Perhaps the change of scenery is to blame, or a lack of fresh ideas second time around. Either way, in China Girl, something funny is in the water.