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Top of the Lake: China Girl - Review: "Masterclass"

Top of the Lake: China Girl - Review:
Directed by Jane Campion & Ariel Kleiman, Written by Jane Campion & Gerard Lee

2017 has very much been the year of Elisabeth Moss, at least in terms of television. After wowing audiences with The Handmaid's Tale, which earned Hulu its first ever Emmy nominated series, she reunited with acclaimed New Zealand-born filmmaker Jane Campion to work on the second season of the critically acclaimed series Top of the Lake, subtitled China Girl (not unfortunately, referencing the David Bowie song of the same name). Whilst in 2013 Campion claimed that there would be no more series of the show as it came to a clear and distinctive ending, obviously her mind was changed, as here we are several years later in 2017, looking at a second season that brings with it an A-List cast, in the form of Game of Thrones and Star Wars's Gwendoline Christie, but the bigger name and biggest draw is Nicole Kidman, who like Moss, is also having a fantastic year, having stolen the scene in Sofia Coppola's terrific The Beguiled film, which remains one of the best movies of 2017.

Here, the action keeps Detective Robin Griffin in the driving seat. Robin herself over the past two seasons has cast a memorable figure as one of the best TV detectives on air, and this season is no exception as it pushes a character driven storyline to the forefront, exploring Robin's character further as she reunites with her daughter Mary, who is now 17. Mary is played by Alice Englert, who has grown up with her foster parents, Julia and Pyke (Kidman and David Dencik). Due to the separation of her parents that happened as a result of Julia having an affair with a female teacher at Mary's school, Mary is acting out, adopting a rebellious nature that is reminiscent of her birth mother. Without Robin's knowledge she is engaged to a 41 year old man, Alexander "Puss", who works in a brothel. It's certainly an interesting conundrum that Robin has to face when she works her way back into her daughter's life, with the show being much about Mary's struggle for acceptance as it is about Robin's own journey.

The central mystery of the show is pushed to the side for most of the seven episodes. It's fairly underwhelming and the weakest part of the show, with the main strength being the character drama. Here the focus revolves around a dead prostitute, who is tossed overboard into the ocean in a suitcase that washes up on the picturesque Bondi Beach. The show once again benefits from having an incredible location that it's filmed on, even though it doesn't feel as remote as the first season, it does leave a remarkable impression on the audience. The direction from Jane Campion (China Girl, Who's Your Daddy) and Ariel Kleiman (The Loved One, Surrogate, Birthday & The Battle of the Mothers) is all top notch as the show keeps it cinematic feel, looking just as good as most movies. The script from Campion & Gerard Lee does feel a bit convoluted in places and maybe makes use of one coincidence too many, but the points it gets across are effective and the end result is a hugely gripping experience that pulls you in and keeps you hooked over the six episodes that aired on SundanceTV last weekend and BBC 2 in the UK earlier in the year (as well as being aired online on BBC 3 and Hulu respectively). It's an easily bingeable series that benefits from its richly compelling, serialised drama that will pull you in and keep you hooked.

The haunting nature of the show helps add to its atmosphere. There may be no remote feel here as most of the show takes place in a city, which the first series did have to offer, but for the most part it makes use of its new location to help it feel fresh and exciting. The almost entirely new cast of characters fits in perfectly where the older ones didn't, and they're a bit more well-defined than last time with clear arcs and storylines, even if some can be a bit predictable at times. The show itself is almost overwhelmingly ambitious in what it aims to tackle but for the most part succeeds on pretty much every level, with there being no weak leak here, nobody that stands out as an anomaly. Keeping the series at two writers has allowed Top of the Lake: China Girl to keep that concise feel and tone, and rather than adopting a bigger approach for Season 2, the show almost feels quieter and really pays off as a result, feeling all the more mesmerising and engrossing.

Much like the first season, China Girl is self contained, but the after effects from Robin's decision to shoot Al in the finale are very much hanging overhead at the beginning of the season. The storyline for the most part is concise and allows plenty of time to flesh out the characters, thanks in part due to their great performances. Christie, Kidman and Moss make an excellent trio of leading women, who are capable of stealing every scene. The scenes in particular between Kidman and Moss are great, as the show handles their characters very well indeed, with Battle of the Mothers, the season (and series?) finale ending things on a high note.

It may yet be the last we'll see of Top of the Lake but all that depends on whether or not Moss and Campion want to do another season. There's enough potential for more storylines to be told but for now, with just these two seasons, the show has established itself as one of the great crime dramas and one of the best results that has come out of #PeakTV. It's still unmissable, still riveting, and a perfect example of an accomplished director and actor at the top of her game. Even if Campion does not return to do more Top of the Lake, I'll be keeping an eye out for whatever her and Moss do next.

About the Author - Milo MJ
Milo is an Arsenal FC supporter and loves TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Justified, Black Sails, The Americans and Person of Interest. He reviews Preacher, The Mist, Star Wars Rebels, Silicon Valley and Veep for Spoiler TV and will be covering Castle Rock, Counterpart, Krypton, Marvel's New Warriors, Rise, Marvel's Runaways, Succession, Star Trek Discovery, and Trust. He also contributes to comic reviews on a weekly basis for All-Comic. He also regularly watches and reviews films on Letterboxd, and you can find his ever-changing list of 300 favourite movies here.
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