The Elizabeth Moss detective drama sinks in its second season. Ben Flanagan reviews.
This year’s Cannes film festival sparked controversy when it screened two former Palme D’or winners’ latest made-for-TV efforts. Twin Peaks: The Return received a rapturous response and has since aired over 18 challenging hours that could well change the television landscape. Less attention was paid however to Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake follow up, China Girl.
Described as a film, although far shorter than David Lynch’s effort, it picks back up on the story of Elizabeth Moss’ Detective Robin Griffin, who is back in Australia and suffering from PTSD after the events of the first season. The body of an unidentified Asian woman is found
in a suitcase around the same time that Robin attempts to reconnect with the daughter she gave up at birth, a seventeen year old under the spell of Pussy, a pimp who seems to be channeling Tommy Wissau in both look and acting ability. Inevitably, these two threads are linked as we are plunged into the deeply misogynistic underworld of Sydney. It has been called hypnotic and hallucinatory (similar vague praise was given to True Detective’s city set second season) and there are some truly bizarre moments. David Wenham’s brief return to torment Moss further is thrilling and a scene set to the Harlem Shake has the energy of something from The Young Pope.
But for the most part the style of the show is flat and depressive. It has nothing of the lucid style that Campion brought to great films like The Piano (1993) and Bright Star (2009), or indeed to Top of the Lake’s first season: less visual expressiveness, less bold choices in the use of close ups and editing. One must assume this is because she only directed two of the six episodes, the rest were handled by relative newcomer Ariel Kleiman, who wastes the abilities of Moss and Nicole Kidman, delivering television without a voice of its own.
That might not matter if the plot was itself compelling but China Girl is disinterested in the detective aspect of the show, which is an open/shut case lacking intrigue, with the writers far more invested in the domestic drama. A shame, as it is that proceduralism that allowed a show like Prime Suspect to explore similar themes with more success. It isn’t subtlety that’s needed as much as a real hook to draw the audience into whatever headspace Campion and company are trying to achieve.
The biggest problem for Top of the Lake: China Girl is the way that it attempts to examine female oppression in Australia. Every scene depicts a man exerting his power over a woman, either physically or by exploiting his status or class. Feminist drama is necessary and in a very exciting place currently; that other Elizabeth Moss show of the summer, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a triumph of both politics and aesthetic, and HBO’s Big Little Lies built to a truly cathartic conclusion.
But China Girl is not interested in exploring the institutional systems which allow the tyrannical behaviour depicted, or the way that people can inadvertently contribute to the very patriarchy they desperately want to dismantle. The behaviour it depicts, whether it’s a group of men sitting in a cafe loudly discussing their favourite prostitute or the wretched Puss biting Moss’ nose, is always set dressing rather than reaching any larger conclusions about this cyclical violence. The first season, with its Holly Hunter-led commune of women facing off against a cruel, male dominated crime family, used that tension to look toward a future utopia in the far distance. China Girl drags us back down to earth with cynicism that says nothing and bores its audience.
Top of the Lake: China Girl is available on BBC iPlayer.
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