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Top of the Lake

Sat Jul 13, 9.10-10.10pm, BBC2

By Gabriel Tate

Episode one
Still not convinced of television drama’s primacy over film? Try ‘Top of the Lake’. It brings Jane Campion, one of cinema’s great modern auteurs, back to the small screen 23 years after she came to prominence with ‘An Angel at my Table’. In Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan and Holly Hunter, she has gathered a core cast to grace any indie. And it became the first TV series to premiere at the Sundance Festival, where it received an understandably rapturous response.

‘I loved the idea of having something novel-length,’ says Campion of her return to TV with co-creator Gerard Lee. ‘It was too wide and big for a film. I was excited about trying to reach my limit, rather than contain myself for a film audience.’ It’s an enormously ambitious undertaking, working from the long-established genre of crime drama to explore a broad palette of ideas, both visually and narratively.

Adjectives like Malick-esque or Lynchian are apt, but this masterful six-part series is still identifiably Campion’s work dealing, like ‘The Piano’ or ‘Holy Smoke’, with closed lives and the corruption of innocence against wide-open landscapes of apparently untouchable purity.

The focus is prodigal detective Robin Griffin (Moss, fascinatingly enigmatic), leading the investigation into a pregnant 12-year-old girl who disappears from the a stunning but insular and testosterone-heavy community of Laketop, on New Zealand’s South Island. The girl’s father, local gangster Matt Mitcham (Mullan, more terrifying than ever), impedes Robin’s progress, while the establishment of a retreat for troubled women, headed by androgynous guru GJ (Hunter, somehow noble and absurd) only confuses matters further.

‘Everyone has a right to a childhood and there’s something wrong with a community if that can’t happen,’ says Campion. But this is no ‘Killing’-inspired exercise in Kiwi noir: there are deep reservoirs of eccentric humour and intriguing Biblical analogies, while the feminist undercurrent is subtle yet insistent. It’s a superb achievement: gripping, nuanced and boasting a distinctive creative voice. The small screen never felt so big.

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