I am at my parents’ house reading an actual physical newspaper (I’ve almost forgotten what one looks like, but they get one every day) when I see through an interview with Holly Hunter that I’ve missed a goodly sized chunk of a series by Jane Campion. This is what happens, BBC, when you schedule a drama to begin in July – that point in the year when all people who work in schools, such as yours truly, are staggering to the end of the year on their knees.
Fortunately, to my great joy, all the episodes were still available on iPlayer. So, in my greatly recovered, OOH state, I went off to watch.
Jane Campion. New Zealand. And New Zealand is so incredible looking that the effect a country’s physical being has on its national psyche just hits you in the face. Will we in the UK ever produce dramas such as Top of the Lake? We’re good at drilling down into the minutiae, and making landscapes out of our interior lives, such as the toilet scenes in Trainspotting. We’re good at contrasting textures, intricately stitched together, as in Downton Abbey. But big, broad, brooding dramas such as Top of the Lake or The Returned? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Post comments if you can prove me wrong, I’d love to know.
Each scene in Top of the Lake is like a canvas: grey woods, branches dripping down over the foreground like a ghostly miasma; wide yellow cornfields aching with late sun and hot with covetousness; blue misty mountains looming over the cold expanse of lake. Against which tiny people set up tiny residences and play out their tiny lives, and we zoom in on them. Land and terrain, so much of it. Mattering so much to so many people. A matter of life and death.
Like the wide open expanses we are exposed to from the start, the drama starts off in such an open way. To being with, we don’t know where any of this is going. A girl, Tui Mitcham, cycles to a lake and wades in up to her chest, until she is “rescued” by a passing teacher. Rescued she may have been, or at least the physical shell of her, but there are stronger currents pulling her back.
Three men in a truck, raucous and tattooed, drive across a golden cornfield. One of them, a cross between Billy Connolly and the dad off Shameless, with a good deal more lurking randomness beneath, gets out. He has just learnt that the land they are driving across has been sold, when he thought that he and his family had an agreement. He grasps a handful of the corn and sinks down into it, almost collapsing with some kind of pain. He comes across the new occupants, a bunch of self-healing hippies, living in containers. The oblique versus the volatile. For a moment, everything turns on the darkly black absurd. Worlds skim off each other. Violence is averted, for now at least.
Into this steps our detective heroine, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss). The atmosphere down the local police station is akin to that of the original Prime Suspect, all those years ago. Unlike Prime Suspect. there’s so much else going on that seems bigger, that all the uncomprehending misogyny just exists, steeping the action in some kind of reality.
You root for Robin, who is so determined, against all the hopeless odds, to make a difference, but it seems so hopeless.
“It’s a long way from any help,” says her mother, when Robin reveals that she is about to venture onto an extremely dodgy backwater of a site to interview Tui’s father.
“I am the help,” she says.
Robin is returning home to see her mother, who has cancer. A mini-landscape of inter-generational battles plays out in this tiny little house on the edge of a lake, where they can “hear each other breathing”. Is this peculiar to our generation, us women of thirty and forty-something? To be caught between a generation who were brought up, in the 60s and 70s, to believe still in duty, and a generation who crave self-fulfilment and self-expression?
Or is this just the drama ongoing, for generations to come?
And if it is not, what will our future landscapes of inter-generational dramas look like?