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Top of the Lake: China Girl review – Jane Campion’s once-masterful drama jumps the shark

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.

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16 responses to “Top of the Lake: China Girl review – Jane Campion’s once-masterful drama jumps the shark

  1. I watched this without reading any reviews, wish i had. Why on earth did Kidman have to be made up like a grey haired snaggletooth? It totally took away from the character. The misogynistic men were never put in their place – and such a casual attitude by all characters to the chaos going on arohnd them.. like ramp up the reactions for heavens sake!
    The daughter needed to be put in a head lock or given a swift kick up the arse.. self indulgent little turd she was. Let her go to Thailand, brainwashed or not. Your biological mother was bit on the face!!! Hello?..
    As if the gunman would stay on the beach.
    As if the daughter wouldnt have had some sort of intervention earlier.
    She had a great and intelligent vocabulary and an 11th hour about face at the airport? “You closed the elevator doors on me”? Wait sorry, he did slap you, bite your mothers face, ruin your school dance, send you onto the streets, disregard your father, lose it in a restaurant.. but “hold the doors!!”
    Ahhhh angry, im done.

  2. Say I’m dumb but I didn’t realise Episode six was the finale. I was waiting to see what was resolved after the beach shoot scene. Took me over a week to realise that was it!

  3. If a man made a series in which women were caricatured as spitefully and offensively as the men are in this, he’d be hung out to dry – perhaps even prosecuted – and certainly say goodbye to any career. Why is Jane Campion allowed to get away with it? She clearly has serious issues.
    Man-hating aside, the series was a ghastly mishmash of improbable plot, ludicrous dialogue, and gratuitous violence – what on earth had the episode with Al Parker to do with anything? I began to think that the entire cast, including the men, were surrogate mothers. The ending was pathetically inconclusive – a deliberate refusal to deal with any of the issues – and also quite ludicrous – (spoiler alert) someone could bury themselves in the sand on Bondi beach for 12 or more hours in temperatures reaching 35C? Come off it.
    Only rescued from being turkey of the year by some fine performances, notably Moss.

  4. Excellent review. This series was a waste of time. I realised this 2 episodes in but I went down with the ship and watched the rest of it. It’s all so… unbelievable. So the Dad KNOWS his 17 year old daughter is – hanging around a 40-something German guy who a) helps run and lives in a brothel b) is a suspect in a possible murder c) unprovoked, took a bite out his daughters maternal mothers nose and d) pimps her out. He knows all this but remains cool as a cucumber. Even has time for a bit of romance.

    The season is called China Girl. What actually happened to China girl? Pay close attention! You find out in a throwaway line near the end of the last episode. “Aw yeah, she killed herself”. Why? Why did she kill herself? Evidently, that’s a secret. Not one of those ‘open to interpretation’ mysteries. More ‘screenwriter couldn’t be arsed or ran out of time’ kind of deals.

    Total mess of a series. Were those guys sitting around the cafe comparing notes on prostitutes supposed to depict your average uni age Aussie guy – or your average ‘punter’ – or what? What exactly was that? Whatever it was, it was cringe. Multiple layers of cringe.

    1. I do fully agree with you on this but I found Elisabeth Moss totally boring & unbelievable in her character role. Perhaps this was really a dark comedy?

  5. Overwrought, self-indulgent dross. If Jane Campion’s name wasn’t attached, would this have ever been commissioned?
    I was a fan of Season 1, helped by atmospheric locales and quirky characters. I stuck with China Girl to see if things would come together, but it got more unbelievable, cringeworthy at times. One ray (oops) of light was Geoff Morrell (Ray, the medical examiner).

  6. So ends China Girl episode 6 without any clue as to who and why China Girl was killed and thrown away in a suitcase or did I miss something. Basically the series it was a complete waste of film and talent. I thought our heroine might at some point show some backbone but there was no escape from the neurotic week women she was in the 1st series. Disappointing.

  7. I’m with Billy the Fish and Mike. Top of the Lake is pretty much the most wildly overrated piece of supposedly ‘serious’ television of the recent past. Boring, inconsequential and full of itself. I wouldn’t consider watching a second series as this review could stand in for my take on the first.

  8. Both series had scads of wadding you had to pretend weren’t there or which were so improbable as to be comical. I just enjoyed what I could (scenery in S1 and the moral plights in S2) with the mental note that Campion shouldn’t do series.

  9. Top of the Lake without the lake was always going to be a tall order. I loved that first series so much and have been hanging out for the second series. It didn’t give me as much as the first, there were issues with narrative and the style was more commercial maybe? but there were still some really lovely moments, and I’m still incredibly grateful for Jane Campion’s guts to dream big & take risks, and if the creative whole didn’t come together 100% this time, well damn I’m still glad she’s making, and I won’t miss one of her works. I’d be interested to know what conditions were different for her this time… but in all her work her unapologetic foregrounding of women characters is so refreshing, the way she looks at power as it flows across class, race and gender lines, and her keen eye. Not everyone enjoys those in her work. Personally I hope Jane Campion creates for decades to come, I will always find her worth watching.

  10. Excellent. I’m of the same opinion. A total failure and even worse – an affront in the way it spurned the abilities of the cameraman they had in the first series.

    One scene stands out vividly from that second series – the shot on the stairway down the cliff.

    About the only opportunity the camera had to make a visual statement of beauty and value and it took it greedily and gave us a picture worthy of the masters.

    For the rest – squashed inside insipid featureless walls, the indoor environment of the modern ersatz human being – it was rubbish piled on rubbish.

    An affront to put it out under the title ‘Top Of The Lake’ when the beauty and the glory of that place was so central to the first series and going by the title the whole concept. An affront.

  11. Congratulations on having the guts to express an honest opinion on an ‘iconic’ Aussie director. Too often poor scripts are ignored and because someone has an international track record all their work is treated with reverence.

  12. I didn’t like the first series. It was ridiculously earnest. What was the point of Holly Hunter and her group of feral women? They weren’t part of the plot. And why was everyone so grumpy all the time?

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