Top of the Lake (BBC2) – Review

top of the LakePeter Mullan is fast becoming one of my favourite actors. His every pore seems to exude menace and fear, and when you add to the mix his deep, rasping Peterhead accent the effect can be truly terrifying.

Mullan’s performance as denim clad heavy Matt Mitcham in Jane Campion’s new seven-episode mini-series is inspired – particularly as in episode one he listens to the muddled ramblings of some card-carrying feminists he believes to be trespassing on his family’s land.

During this tense, yet semi-comedic scene, Mullan’s face at once communicates humour, hatred, prejudice, violence, sexual frustration, murderous intent, and utter resignation. He seems to be trying to fathom out whether he should be laughing out loud at these strange, complex creatures or shooting them in the face.

The women respond to this open contempt by simply telling Mitcham to fuck off, and calling him an “Alpha Ass.”  You get the feeling he’ll be back.

Top of the Lake (BBC2) begins as a mysterious young girl walks slowly into a lake in an apparent attempt to drown herself. This scene feels strangely reminiscent of The Returned, the other big “lake drama” currently running over on Channel 4. If you want a hit TV series at the moment, my advice is to set it close to a lake, or ideally in one.

This is a world of ugly, tattooed men, armed to the teeth and accompanied by vicious dogs with mouths full of nasty, pointy teeth. Brutality, rape and incest are clearly high on these people’s lists of favorite pursuits, and visitors are viewed with suspicion and loathing.

When the young girl, Tui, is taken to the police, we discover that she’s only 12 years old and very pregnant. As if she hasn’t got enough problems we then find out that her father is non other than scary Mr Mitcham himself.

Mitchams’s charming response to all of this is to tell the police that his daughter is a slut “like her dad was a slut.” He then goes on to explain that he had his first orgasm when he was seven. Which isn’t very useful, to be honest.

I’m confused about a few things. We’re in New Zealand. Mitcham is Scottish and his daughter appears to be Chinese. Meanwhile, the local police woman Detective Griffin is played by American actress Elisabeth Moss (She’s Peggy in Mad Men) ABC apparently withdrew its funding for the whole series when Moss was cast in this role. Either they didn’t like Mad Man or they share my own nagging concern that there are too many different accents in a series about a small, insular town in the middle of nowhere.

But Moss is great in this part as she is in everything she does. She does quiet dignity extremely well, and it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen when she’s around.

The oddest character appears to be GJ, self proclaimed leader of the women’s’ refuge, played by Campion’s no doubt favourite actor Holly Hunter. Both Hunter’s performance, and her accent, appear to have been inspired by the jungle scenes in Apocalypse Now, but I’m sure her character will get fleshed out over the next few weeks.

Top of the Lake is good. Very good. It proves once again that the BBC would rather buy good drama than make it themselves.