Although her role in The Square as a journalist-cum-art groupie is a supporting one despite top billing, Elisabeth Moss is having some kind of year anyway. The best TV actor of 2017, as confirmed by her recent Emmy, she equals if not tops her extraordinary work in The Handmaid’s Tale with her reprise as police detective Robin Griffin in China Girl, Jane Campion’s second six-hour Top of the Lake miniseries, which picks up five years after the first.
Griffin was the victim of a gang rape in her teen years and now finds herself drawn to the daughter she bore and gave up for adoption, who also bears the scars of her violent conception. While the contemporary crime genre isn’t entirely new for a director whose early triumphs were ’90s surrealist gothic period pieces like The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, it isn’t typical either, yet Top of the Lake still fuses the primal and otherworldly beauty of Campion’s native Down Under with her most fervent dramatic concern.
That concern, in a word, is sex, by which the species perpetuates itself and sometimes achieves bliss but also plummets into the darkest sort of madness. In Campion’s stories, sex makes everyone lose their bearings, makes everything go haywire, and while it’s the guys who manifest such derangement most incessantly and destructively, women bring their own eccentric flourishes to the strange commingling: Griffin’s adolescent daughter fixates romantically on a megalomaniacal creep twice her age who wants to pimp her out; Griffin’s police partner, played by Game of Throne’s Valkyrian Gwendoline Christie, sleeps around even as she’s pregnant; and then Griffin herself commits what in some ways turns out to be the biggest lapse of all.
Impressive as the first installment was four years ago, Top of the Lake: China Girl—streaming on Hulu after having premiered on the Sundance channel— is better and an all the more astonishing venue for Moss, her character buffeted by inner storms of guilt, sorrow, alienation, doubt, fury. Midway through the series is a jaw-dropping scene that involves a backroom confrontation with another character from series one and is the scariest explosion of onscreen rage in memory.
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