Elisabeth Moss and Peter Mullan in "Top of the Lake"
Elisabeth Moss and Peter Mullan in "Top of the Lake"

This recap includes spoilers from the two-hour premiere of "Top of the Lake," which aired on March 18.

“Top of the Lake,” the new Sundance Channel miniseries created, written and directed in part by Jane Campion, is a masterfully twisty creation that floats just out of the reach of comfortable comprehension. Its characters, united in the search for a missing girl against an ominous backdrop of awesome scenery and local misogyny, move through scenes that are at once anchored in the real and yet have a dreamlike quality.

Detective Robin Griffin (a lean, keen Elisabeth Moss, speaking easily with a Kiwi accent) is a specialist in children’s welfare cases, and has returned to her backwoods New Zealand hometown of Laketop to spend time with her sick mother. When she’s called in to interview Tui Mitcham, a pregnant 12-year-old girl hauled alive out of the region’s bitterly frozen lake, Robin’s presence on the case is met with wariness by head detective Al Parker (David Wenham) and the rest of the police force.

Top of the Lake

“Shit,” Al mutters, upon hearing that Child Services has sent a woman to dig into the investigation. One senses that Laketop sustains a number of queasily off-color cases each year, hushed up and smoothed over so as not to upset the easily riled, gun-toting locals. If Tui’s situation is any indication, a number of these cases involve the abuse of women.

Tui lives in a household of unsavory men. Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) is the grizzled patriarch, speaking in a lilt more Scottish than New Zealander, who lords over his good-for-nothing sons on their suspiciously isolated property. As Robin shrewdly points out, it’s a sinister place for a young girl to grow up, and an environment that may be unkind to the news of her pregnancy -- if it didn’t already have something to do with it.

The Mitchams’ lakeside open space, called Paradise, has been sold off without the family’s consent to a halfway-home community of emotionally battered women. The commune, a cluster of colorful boxcars dotting the edge of the lake, is headed by the androgynous mystic GJ (Holly Hunter, committing to one of the most awe-inspiringly weird performances in recent memory). Upon discovering the sale, Matt and his sons drown duplicitous real estate agent Bob Platt, a casually offhand kill that sets the hypnotic, rock-in-your-stomach tone for the rest of the two-hour premiere.

Top of the Lake

The scenes at the commune have Campion’s off-kilter sense of humor, while retaining an edge. One of the women rambles on about her dearly departed pet chimp, as if he were a boyfriend that had been cruelly discarded. The group has come to Paradise to find themselves, to reach a “different mental state,” like GJ. This works in tandem with Robin, who it quickly becomes clear is on a search of her own.

When Tui disappears, Robin’s fascination with the case and her feelings of connection to the girl go into overdrive. She plays and re-plays a home video of Tui, watching her every movement with the same awed fascination that she might have looking at an image of her younger self.

Robin, Al and the police team begin culling suspects; the Mitcham men are obvious candidates, along with a local sex offender, Austrian pedophile Wolfie.  In a brash move perhaps prompted by the sexism on the police team, Robin visits the rifle-hoarding Wolfie at his cabin -- alone.  Bad idea. The mentally unstable outcast holds her at gunpoint until Johnno, the one Mitcham brother seemingly estranged from his vile family, talks the man down from his nervous fit.

We learn that Robin and Johnno have a past, albeit a cloudy one. They start up an affair, despite Robin being engaged to a police officer back in Sydney.

The dark greys and lush greens of the series’ color palette suggest deepness. Not only is the lake deep, bubbling up ominous debris (Bob Platt’s body, for one), but the atmosphere of Laketop is deep, holding secrets, lies and knotty narratives that need uncovering. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“Snowtown,” “Animal Kingdom”) gets the most out of the stunning New Zealand countryside and luxuriates in long shots, so that we as viewers are stretched to absorb all of the visual information being given.

As Robin is forced to look again at the town of her upbringing, and to literally scan the expansive hills and valleys of Laketop for signs of Tui, we too must look closely, must search each scene and frame for details and hints. The series’ gorgeous illustrated opening credits sink down into the depths of a watercolor lake, inviting us to sink with them into the mystery. Based on these first two episodes of seven, it will be one of the most rewarding experiences on television this year.

Bits and pieces:

  • Episode 1 is directed by Campion, while Episode 2 is directed by Garth Davis.
  • The series is co-written by Gerard Lee, who collaborated with Campion on “Sweetie.”
  • The trailer for the series is here.