Jane Campion’s latest foray into television, while featuring admirable performances, sees the writer–director stray too far from what she does best. By Helen Razer.

Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl

Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, and Gwendoline Christie as Miranda Milmarson, in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl.
Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, and Gwendoline Christie as Miranda Milmarson, in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl.

Art may be an infinitely renewable resource. Unhappily, screen-funding is not. The gap that will always fatally divide any market from the productive human urge upon which it was founded is now feared by screen critics. Many warn we are about to enter a slump following “Peak TV” – a period of uncommon quality which began, it is largely agreed, with The Sopranos, and may have crested with Lynch’s recent masterwork, Twin Peaks. The reservoir of television-as-art, they say, is all dried up. Things are in terminal decline.

I had chosen to take an optimistic view and ignore all these fears of overproduction. Surely, the ground that gave rise to Breaking Bad, Cleverman, Six Feet Under and others would not be left fallow but could only serve to stimulate a flourishing of future talent. Great auteurs would continue to leave the blockbuster yoke of cinema for television, I reasoned. Great showrunners would prefer the freedom of the on-demand model to the humdrum of network. Great numbers of viewers would be cultivated by artists who grew up watching Godard. This new Golden Age was, surely, never to be tarnished.

But, darn it, perhaps we might all detect a sign of market collapse next Sunday, August 20, on Foxtel’s BBC First. To call Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl ham-fisted does disservice to the best work of Peppa Pig.

The Palme d’Or winner’s second foray into television – the first was the Janet Frame biopic An Angel at My Table – came in 2013 with the initial Top of the Lake. Any flaws in that obdurately feminist narrative were more than made up for by Campion’s ardent, almost fearful respect for the look of New Zealand – and her decision to appoint Australian Adam Arkapaw as director of photography, leading to an Emmy for his beautiful trouble. The thing appeared on screen as it had, I imagine, in Campion’s singular imagination: ruinous and redeeming; vast and sequestering; fertile and lethal.

It was also saved by the look of American actor Elisabeth Moss, who plays protagonist Detective Robin Griffin in both series. If there were a prize for Face Most Haunted by the Patriarchal Complex, she’d have won it in Campion’s small-town tale of deception, as she would have as Mad Men’s Peggy and again as Offred/June in The Handmaid’s Tale. Moss’s Antipodean accent has been universally condemned – and not without cause: it’s about as faithful to its provenance as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney is in Mary Poppins. Still, much can be forgiven, and even forgotten, as the lens falls on a face whose smallest gesticulation can fill a frame with such force.

The storytelling in this first season unfolded visually. There was no character explicitly mute, such as Holly Hunter’s Ada in Campion’s The Piano, but there were plenty of characters who simply refused, or were unable, to speak. Detective Griffin would not talk about her past of brutal abuse, nor would the 12-year-old victim, Tui, she attempted to save. Griffin’s mother, played by Robyn Nevin, would not talk of her fatal illness, nor of her daughter’s genealogy – which became something of a problem when it seemed Griffin was boffing her biological brother at every opportunity. No one would speak of the two shady industries that both funded and devastated the town, and even when the silence of Laketop was filled by sage words, these emerged to us as unauthentic.

In a marvellously self-referential move, Campion casts Holly Hunter, former wise mute, as a false and talkative oracle. As GJ, a sort of demotivational life coach for menopausal women, Hunter is given to aphoristic outbursts that sound astute – “In nature there is no death. Just a reshuffling of atoms” – but are, in fact, borrowed from the “non-thought” of late anti-guru U. G. Krishnamurti. She charges all in her midlife menagerie 50 bucks a week to hear things they already know.

The largely silent series was hypnotic. It was also, for its dearth of speech, an eloquent challenge to our era’s widespread belief that repressed pain can find escape through spoken expression. Why talk as though one is on the Oprah show when one can convey through image, or explore through landscape, the antidote to pain? For me, the strength of this series was Campion’s unspoken impatience with speech. Ours is a time, she seemed to be saying, of psychoanalysis in reverse. The more we talk, the less we understand. Pain shall be resolved by the quiet detective, by silent, visual scrutiny.

In Top of the Lake: China Girl, however, someone turned up the volume. They also turned down the contrast. The chiaroscuro New Zealand is gone and in its place is the city of Sydney, shot neither to make the most of its true gaudy colours nor to make it look like no other series on earth. The blue filter of ordinary police procedurals is preferred for nearly every scene, and it’s a great shame to see an actor as good as Moss look as if she’s on the set of The Bill.

Moss is very good. Of course she is. Even when dumped in the speculative mediocrity of The Handmaid’s Tale, she ascends and offers Atwood’s crude, ahistorical sketch of America the gift of plausibility. Fresh from her triumph in Big Little Lies, Nicole Kidman also proves her escalating artistic value. But to admire the work of actors in the moment they are acting before you is generally a sign that something has gone awry. In this case, it is the rest of the cast, the script, the cinematography and, perhaps, Campion’s new fixation on asserting her intelligence through dialogue rather than vision.

“The really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television,” Campion told The Guardian this year. But what the really clever people rarely do, in any medium, is subdue their central strength. This, for Campion, has always been the ability to convey an idea, a plot point, a sense of pain through vision: Ada’s legs freeing themselves from the submerged piano, the decaying teeth of Kerry Fox’s Frame shown in a smile. Save for a few remarkable scenes – Bondi Beach depicted as a battleground, the black hair of the eponymous China Girl signalling like seaweed in the Tasman – that strength is not respected here.

It is true that artists, especially great ones such as Campion, should be applauded for experimentation. But China Girl, with its fey warnings about the dangers of online porn, doesn’t feel like it’s pursuing a new artistic direction, but following an old propagandist convention. Maxim Gorky had nothing but approval from Stalin when he declared, “Writers are the midwife to socialism, and the gravedigger to capitalism.” He wrote literature to improve the productivity of workers and the mood of the general secretary. Campion, it seems to me, has written for the approval of the Feminist United Front.

Being a lady, I certainly count feminism among my hobbies and crave a time when our collective efforts will lay the master discourse to rest. But when our means of communicating sisterhood, most particularly through art, are derived from a central committee, they can become as transparent to feminists as socialist realism did to comrades. Certainly, feminist advocates for sex work have found Campion’s depiction of brothel labour diminishing. Workers operating in Sydney, where sex work is legal and therefore safer and less subject to industrial abuse, are shown as unusually vulnerable to murder, misogynistic obsession and a violent Svengali pimp named Puss – a man shown, rather incongruously, to be reading Red Flag at one point, a socialist publication that would take a very dim view of his exploitative labour practice.

The feminism Campion once conveyed through equivocal visual deed is now largely offered through unambiguous dialogue. The director–writer’s oeuvre clearly marks her as one of the “really clever people” now moved to make TV, but China Girl appears to us as little more than the moralising work of someone who believes art’s function is not to extend its own language but, in this case, to persuade us that men do little more than deaden their dicks and libidos to a nonstop horror porn show, perhaps while coercing their co-workers into sex and dabbling in a little illegal surrogacy work.

All of these matters deserve fearless inquiry, artistic and otherwise. But surely women have earnt more of what Campion may wish to provide but fails to: namely, stories about women in which they are not ceaselessly posited in relation to the damage done to them, or the valorisation offered, by men.

Some critics have written of their frustration at the flat characterisation of men in this series. As a pragmatist, and a feminist, I find this easy to forgive. A girl has only so much time to flesh out her creations and if she skimps on the chaps and, in many cases, replaces their backstory with an irascible penis, I am not troubled. But the spectre of men, per currently popular feminism, overshadows the writing here with the effect that women are reduced to a wan nobility. Moss’s Griffin is really just Mother Mary, but with PTSD and a drinking problem.

Were our screens still largely barren of women untethered to men, I’d give Campion points for trying. I would perhaps excuse her the profligate plot coincidences that see our detective protagonist moved to investigate her boss, her neighbour and even her biological daughter. Still, I don’t know even then if I could excuse her artistic shift away from what she does best. You can’t take a landscape and shoehorn it into orthodox dogma. You can’t retain your real, panoramic cleverness within acceptable frames.


Arts Diary

SCIENCE This is a Voice

Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences, Sydney, until January 28

DANCE Pile of Bones

Arts House, Melbourne, August 15-19

THEATRE Di and Viv and Rose

Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until September 16

MUSIC Supersense: Festival of the Ecstatic

Arts Centre, Melbourne, August 18-20

OPERA The Rape of Lucretia

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 19-26

THEATRE Lip Service

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, August 17-September 30

CINEMA Arab Film Festival

Riverside Theatres, Sydney, August 17-20

Cinema Nova, Melbourne, August 25-27

National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Canberra, September 1-2

Last chance

THEATRE Cloud Nine

Wharf Theatres, Sydney, until August 12

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2017 as "Lake flaccid".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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