October 3, 2017

VIFF 2017 | 'Top of the Lake: China Girl' Unravels

VIFF 2017 | Elisabeth Moss Gwendoline Christie Jane Campion Gerard Lee Ariel Kleiman | Top of the Lake: China Girl

VIFF 2017—Originally envisioned to be a fully contained miniseries telling a single story, Top of the Lake and Elisabeth Moss return, albeit in a new locale, for another season of drama focused on the destructive consequences of sexual assault in society. Directed by Jane Campion and Ariel Kleiman and written by Campion and Gerard LeeTop of the Lake: China Girl goes from New Zealand to Sydney to explore the further ghosts of Moss' Detective Robin Griffin and her adult life.

Thread lines and issues first introduced in season one are fleshed out with mixed results. Her gang rape as a teenager, the daughter she gave up for adoption, half-brother, and other baggage are investigated alongside a chilling murder. Unfortunately, a lot of the dense plot revolves around contrivance and artifice revealed early on. The remoteness of small-town Laketop, New Zealand is traded for the vast corruption of big city Sydney as Robin is tasked to solve another mystery wrapped in her own tortured history.

China Girl trades the initial Kiwi cast for a new group of talented Aussie actors. A very tall but disarming Gwendoline Christie is suitably hilarious, vulnerable, and dynamic as Robin's eagerly emotional partner. She's a complex yet odd duck full of strange and unclear motivations. They make for an endearing mismatched buddy pairing.

VIFF 2017 | Elisabeth Moss Gwendoline Christie Jane Campion Gerard Lee Ariel Kleiman | Top of the Lake: China Girl

Nicole Kidman, on a roll, is sadly mostly wasted in a role not worthy of her immense range and talent. Her overbearingness and attitude as an adoptive mother strangely contrast a superficially similar role in Lion (directed by first season co-director Gareth Davis). She feels inessential to the dramatic events of the series and is only around to serve theatrics and manufacture conflict with her troubled daughter.

A particularly grimy David Dencik is convincing as an ultra sleazy sex trafficker and faux East German intellectual (oddly reminiscent of Tommy Wiseau), but he is entirely unconvincing as a charismatic womanizer capable of manipulating women or his teenage girlfriend. Campion's own daughter Alice Englert turns a chilling performance as Kidman's adopted daughter and said teenager who somehow gets lured into the seedy underworld of Sydney prostitution and human trafficking for seemingly no reason despite her privilege.

By going to such personal extremes regarding motherhood and violence against women, Top of the Lake: China Girl slowly falls off the rails as every relationship folds in on itself to reach the climactic conclusion. Where season one was a quietly satisfying resolution, the second is a much messier affair. Still enticing and engrossing, Campion's narrative storytelling never quite matches her impeccable visuals with an uneven story about fractured parenthood and internalized misogyny.

Top of the Lake: China Girl screened at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Panorama stream. It airs on CBC later this year.

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