Taking the concept of binge-watching to a whole new theatrical level, we were lucky enough to spend most of our Sunday at the Berlin Film Festival in a large auditorium consuming Jane Campion’s six-hour “Top of the Lake” TV series, which will air in seven episodes on The Sundance Channel starting March 18th. It was a great experience, and not just because of the quality storytelling and filmmaking on display, but because of the sense of community and buzz you get at this type of event. We saw the show divided into three two-hour chunks, and during the brief intermissions, the audience buzzed with speculation: who was the father of the unborn child? Was X dead or alive? What was the significance of Y? Strangers shared increasingly oddball speculations with their neighbors (the guy behind me had a very bizarre theory involving a used condom that was shot down not just on the grounds of there being no evidence of it in the show, but being biologically impossible too). It all must have been rather gratifying for the film team attending, including Campion, co-writer (and collaborator on Campion’s first feature “Sweetie”) Gerard Lee, actors Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan, and producer Ian Canning ("Shame," “The King’s Speech”). And indeed, Campion did seem suitably pleased as she delivered her thank yous after the marathon, to a standing ovation and over applause that just didn’t stop.
Of course most viewers’ experience aren’t going to have this same sort of live community feel (Twitter etc. notwithstanding), but even subtracting the difference that ambiance can make, we feel confident in saying there’s a treat in store here. Frankly, if you were watching ‘TOTL’ in a concrete bunker a thousand miles away from the next human being, it would still be a hugely compelling, enjoyable show, featuring outstanding photography and sense of mood, genuine suspense, a surprising amount of humor and a clutch of performances so terrific they are riveting to watch.
So how "Campion" is it? Well, aside from the obvious and the surface -- it features a lot of pivotal female roles, several of whom sport very Campion-esque long grey hair -- the show, to its credit, does not feel overly authorial, and neither do Campion's directorial episodes differ in any discernible way from co-director Garth Davis'. It's made to be watched by a wide audience, and made within a recognizable genre with rules and conventions it doesn't break, but interprets elegantly. In fact, we’d hazard that 'TOTL' is not really a television show at all, and not just because of the widescreen vistas. As Campion herself said, the filmmakers always thought of it as a film, or more accurately a "novel," and the length and breadth of the endeavor bears this out, as does its structure. It doesn’t suffer from the kind of repetition and monotony a more episodic show might, especially when watched all at once, and from the very outset, you know you are heading toward a definite conclusion. This is not a show that you can feel being written stage by stage with an eye on a potential second season (not that we’d be averse), it’s a filmic story that simply requires six hours to tell right.
To say more about the plot and avoid even the merest hint of any spoilers would be difficult, so we’ll confine ourselves to the setup: Robin Griffin returns to her childhood home Laketop from Sydney to spend time with her dying mother. As it happens, while she’s there, a 12-year-old girl (terrific newcomer Jacqueline Joe) walks into the freezing lake only to be discovered to be pregnant when she’s rescued. Since Robin is a detective who specializes in cases involving children, she’s drafted in to help the local police, headed by Al (Wenham). But the girl’s father (Mullen), patriarch of a clan of thugs and engaged in a land battle with a newly established commune of women (headed by Hunter as their guru), has shady reasons of his own for refusing to cooperate with Robin’s investigation.