We speak to the stars and director of gritty drama Top of the Lake about the wide-screen intent of its second series, the latest example of television built to Hollywood standards
Top of the Lake: China Girl brings an all-star cast together under A-list director Jane Campion
There is a growing school of thought that television is the new cinema. As Hollywood reels from its worst summer box-office showing in the United States since 1995, TV basks in the success of shows like Game of Thrones, with budgets and production values on a par with Hollywood blockbusters. Top of the Lake, which returns on Friday for a second series subtitled China Girl, is a prime example of this new breed of pedigree TV.
The BBC and Sundance Channel co-production is co-written and directed by The Piano’s Jane Campion, one of only four women to ever be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and the only woman to win Cannes’ Palme d’Or. In terms of cast, the movie lines up alongside the best Hollywood has to offer, with Star Wars and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie and Madmen and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss taking the leads, and Nicole Kidman among notable supporting names. The show even had its premiere as a 12-hour movie at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – its predecessor did the same (though a fleeting seven hours for the first season) at 2013’s Sundance Festival.
Top of the Lake is Campion’s first TV work since 1990, and she doesn’t see the need for the distinction between movie and TV genres. With the first series picking up armfuls of awards, including Emmys and Golden Globes, her opinion comes with some weight.
“Our only concern is the quality of the production,” she says. “We just want to do something we really love. The only point is to make something as well as we can. With China Girl, we wanted to make something that felt like a novel.”
The new series finds Moss’s detective Robin Griffin back in her Sydney home – season one had her investigating the mysterious disappearance of a pregnant teenager in her native New Zealand – where the body of an unidentified Asian woman has been washed up on Bondi Beach. Robin takes on the investigation, but Campion insists the mystery isn’t the main theme of the story.
“We don’t put the crime on top,” she insists. “This story is a tapestry. I enjoy interweaving the threads in storytelling. It’s not a police procedural – mainly because we barely know how a police procedural works. It’s a scandal, and that gives the story a motor.
“The search for a solution to the crime becomes a theme in itself. The person searching is always blind to what it is showing about themselves and what they don’t know about themselves. A crime story can be seen in a flat way, but it also has many layers to it.”
One of those layers seems to involve learning a lot more about Moss’s character. In season one, she was a somewhat isolated individual, investigating a crime far from home in a remote rural community. Now we find her back in her natural environment, with all the complications that brings.
“The first season was about wilderness on the outside, and the second season is about wilderness within,” Moss says. “In the city, you have this claustrophobic feeling of being trapped by buildings and by life. The first series was very clearly about the search for a girl. For Robin, the second series is very clearly about the search for herself.”
Christie, who is best known for her roles as the fearsome Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones and the insidious Captain Phasma in Star Wars, is a newcomer to the cast, playing Robin’s fellow cop Miranda. She says we can expect something a little different to previous roles we have seen her in from the decidedly flawed Miranda.
“Miranda is the opposite of what I’ve been known for. That’s an important and valuable challenge for me,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to play women who are strong and overcome obstacles and use what’s different about them to help. They laugh in the face of convention. Miranda, however, is the opposite. She doesn’t have much working for her. She’s really struggling to make life function. She doesn’t have a lot of friends and is searching for the opportunity of friendship.”
Campion may focus on production values as being the key to the new season’s success, but for Moss, there was one very simple thing that led to her returning for a second season – the quality of Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee’s script.
“It covers so many different issues and gives rise to so many questions,” Moss says. “That’s the mark of great work. You’re questioning ideas long after you have watched this drama. But it’s also hugely entertaining. Like any great crime story, it’s thrilling. You want to work out the mystery. The strength of this noir-ish narrative coupled with these complex issues is what makes Top of the Lake so compelling.”
The writing was also the main attraction for Christie.
“The script [is] exceptional,” she says. “It’s a piercing stare into the core of what it is to be human. That’s why the drama is so painful, so recognisable and so funny – because it’s true.”
We won’t give too much of the story away, but suffice to say that as well as hopefully solving the mystery, the show will dig deep into the relationship between its two leads, as well as the relationship between Robin, her recently rediscovered daughter Mary (played by Campion’s daughter, Beautiful Creatures’ Alice Englert), who she gave up for adoption as a teenager, and Mary’s recently separated stepmother, played by Kidman.
With such a strong female cast, and a director who is something of a figurehead for campaigners for gender diversity within the film world, the show could be held up as a beacon for the gender struggle in TV and movies – especially as it is screening in the wake of controversy surrounding a lack of female talent at both the Venice and London film festivals. But Campion doesn’t want to read too much into the show’s equality credentials.
“It’s not my thing to be didactic and say: ‘Give girls a go.’ Just doing good work is a strong way of encouraging other female directors,” she says. “But there is a sisterhood in the industry. I always make a point of writing to my female director friends to say: ‘I loved your film. Well done.’ Sofia Coppola and I are friends. I love that. [American Honey director] Andrea Arnold and I said that maybe it was time to open the Wonder Woman Film School. But I do feel that change is in the air. There is new, female-orientated work out there, which is very courageous and interesting.”
Top of the Lake: China Girl begins at 10pm on Friday, September 15 on BBC First, exclusively on OSN