When you factor in the introduction, one intermission, one lunch break, and a Q&A with the cast and filmmakers, the experience of watching all six hours of Jane Campion’s miniseries, Top of the Lake, on Sunday at Sundance went from 9 until 5. It was well worth it; Top of the Lake is an upsetting, beautiful, fantastically acted mystery, and to experience something so intense so intensely was a privilege.
Top of the Lake is about a 12-year-old girl named Tui (Jacqueline Joe) who lives in a remote, gorgeous part of New Zealand who is found by her school to be five months pregnant; the mystery begins there, and ensnares Robin (Elisabeth Moss), a detective back in her hometown, to help her dying mother. The lakeside area is run by a charismatic crime lord named Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), who is Tui’s father and has a long history with Robin’s family — he has the local police under his thumb as well.
There were so many things I loved about Top of the Lake. Its twists — new questions are posed as the hours go by, and they are not all answered at the end — are (mostly) a total surprise; I gasped at least twice, and cried once.
And the character of Robin is a category-killing addition to the damaged woman detective archetype; to say she has to confront her past is an understatement: She has to stab it with a broken bottle. As Peggy on Mad Men, Moss uses her wide, light blue eyes to show Peggy’s sometimes cold ambition. Here, Robin is always full of dread, but she’s compelled; maybe she shouldn’t want to know the answer or the horrible secret, but she must. Moss’ Robin cries frequently, but she is never weak.
I also have to mention Holly Hunter’s crazy role as a laconic (yet shout-y), well-funded guru who has brought her camp of women to the lake, infuriating Matt, who considered the land his. Hunter, reuniting here with Campion — who, hilariously, seems to have made Hunter’s character, GJ, look like her, with long, gray hair worn down — is not on screen much. But she makes it count when she is. And she is funny. (Unlike Moss, Hunter does not affect a New Zealand accent; it’s her in full twang. Not Raising Arizona levels, but certainly Jane Craig-in-Broadcast News-like decisiveness.)
Top of the Lake premieres on Sundance Channel on March 18, and it airs in seven parts (I’ll write more about it closer to then, I’m sure). Seeing it all in one sitting seemed like a terrifying proposition — the only other time I’ve watched such a long thing at once was the (even longer) 9½-hour documentary Shoah. But that was many years ago, and my brain was literally different then.
I’m so happy, though, that I was able to see Top of the Lake in its entirety. It made it feel like an event, as spectacular fiction should feel. The logistics were a nightmare — waiting outside in the freezing cold for a half-hour was nothing compared with the collective horror everyone in the women’s bathroom at the Egyptian Theater experienced when we realized that every toilet had stopped working because the water pressure had simply given out. Nor is it a good screen, and the seats are uncomfortable as hell.
And yet, there’s something utterly false about watching television in weekly installments, which anyone who’s ever spent a weekend marathon-ing a great (or even not so great) TV show knows. As Netflix in particular gets into scripted television, we’re going to start to realize that even brand-new shows can, and sometimes should, be consumed all at once, as a single story. On Feb. 1, Netflix will put up all 13 episodes of the first season of its remake of the U.K. series House of Cards (it will do the same with Arrested Development). Beau Willimon, the House of Cards showrunner, recently told Brian Stelter in The New York Times, “We approached this creatively as a 13-hour movie.”
The only thing missing, then, is the movie theater. It’s a real shame, but also an opportunity: Why don’t content providers hold these sorts of screenings as special programs? HBO: Imagine the Game of Thrones nerds who would kill for such an event. Yes, I’m one of them: God knows what I would pay for that.
Especially if the bathroom had less Lord of the Flies-ish conditions.
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