I live near a railroad station, so not quite at the top or near a lake!
Written By: Jane Campion, Garth Davis, & Gerard Lee
Directed By: Jane Campion & Garth Davis
Femininity is a hard thing to pull off, but one director I know I can trust to give me what I consider a balanced view of femininity is Jane Campion. Top Of The Lake is yet another example of Miss Campion presenting women as wholly complete creatures. They aren’t in the film because of men, they don’t have to act like men to be tough, and they can break down at a moment’s notice. They are human, and they act as a complicated human is prone to act. No woman in Top Of The Lake is the same as the next, they have different problems, different strengths, unique desires, and handle life in their own fashion. They are the pawns of men, the fucktoys of men, the masters of men, tougher than men, and just the same as they are the polar opposite of men. The women in Top Of The Lake are varied, they have character, and that makes their plight compelling to watch.
The men in Top Of The Lake aren’t left out of the loop either. They are just as complicated as the women. They aren’t all tough guys, or rabble rousers. They are weak, manipulative, spiteful, calm, charming, and sincere. They can be romantic, and they can be crass. One scene a male character is opening himself up to a woman for the first time in a long time, attempting to bare his soul. In the next scene he’s flagellating himself, destroying his own body to send away the potential love of a woman, something he has been convinced he doesn’t deserve. Even the evil guys in Top Of The Lake aren’t simply evil, they have triggers, they hide parts of themselves. The men in Top Of The Lake are just as compelling to watch as the women.
The characters are the main thrust behind Top Of The Lake. There is a mystery taking place during the film, and it is a very interesting mystery. Said mystery is gravy on top of the actual meat and potatoes of the film. The Tui storyline is fascinating, thrilling, and evokes all kinds of different emotions. Yet, that is secondary to the growth in the characters and the worldly nature of those characters. I haven’t adored a character like I adore Robin in quite a long time. She’s fascinating for what she does, what she doesn’t do, how she thinks, and the mistakes she makes. Robin exerts just as much control as she shows a decided lack of control. She’s not a loose cannon though, she’s a character growing and changing right in front of our eyes. That means she doesn’t always do the right thing, that she gets into trouble, and that she’ll need to be baled out right after she rescues someone else. Robin is only one character in Top Of The Lake, though admittedly the main character. This is a film filled to the brim with fascinating characters who are given the time and space to change and matter to the film in very different ways.
I’m not sure how much credit to give Garth Davis. I don’t want to speak ill of him in any way, because I did find every installment of Top Of The Lake to be up to snuff. Yet, it’s Miss Campion’s voice that sang loudest to my ears. I can see her trademarks all over the film, and I feel that she does drown out Mr. Davis. Even in the episodes where he was flying solo I could see Miss Campion’s influence, her style and her vision taking shape on the screen. Perhaps it speaks more highly of Mr. Davis that he didn’t try to override Miss Campion and instead went with what was working and kept the quality at a very high and consistent level.
I’ve come to expect a lot from the works of Jane Campion. She’s a filmmaker who I treasure, and who I feel has a better grasp on telling female stories than any other director working today. Top Of The Lake is a very female story, but it’s even more of a human story. An excellent cast, terrific direction, and all around handsome production values combine to form a great film. The subject matter of Top Of The Lake is depressing and the final outcome is not one that will leave the viewer with a winning feeling. Sometimes life is hard, Miss Campion understands that, and so does Top Of The Lake, to great effect.
This was truly one of the best mini-series that I saw as I loved the whole mystery aspect of the film as well as Campion’s approach to feminism. I think it’s one of her strongest works to date though I heard she might be doing more TV and mini-series stuff instead of film due to funding and other things.
Whichever medium she works in I’ll be there as she has remained a consistent force in film and someone whose work I always look forward to checking out.
Great review, Bill! So happy you’re my comrade in loving Campion. You really nail what she does so well, that is, giving us fully complex human beings, women and men, full good qualities and bad qualities, who simply can’t be pigeon-holed into particular stereotypes – though it’s almost as if she plays with stereotypes but is constantly eliding them, not allowing us to settle down on them. Love that.
Garth Davis’s contribution is a bit of mystery to me, too, and I rather felt that Campion’s collaboration with Gerard Lee was the more significant one (he partnered with her in working on a few of her earlier films, too (viz. Passionless Moments and Sweetie, and I think Peel). It’s difficult for me to distinguish though exactly what is Lee and what is Campion in those; those earlier films have a slightly less emotional, less tender feel, something more rigidly cerebral and possibly cold about them or something (though I love them), but I wouldn’t say that about Top of the Lake, so yeah, hard to distinguish between the two artists. Perhaps they’re just such great partners, their collaborations are essentially seamless.
I think you’re on to something, but as you say it’s hard to peg down who is responsible for what, other than Campion of course. In the case of Davis, I really can’t for the life of me figure out what he did for this film. Obviously he had to of contributed something, but this feels like such a Campion film direction wise that Davis disappears and leaves no mark I can discern.