“They’re asking for too much, these dudes.”
VANITY FAIR – A brief cloud crosses actress Gwendoline Christie’s face when I asked her if she thinks her Top of the Lake: China Girl character—the hopeful, open-hearted officer Miranda Hilmarson—bears a close resemblance to her real-life persona. Anyone who has watched Christie in interviews or on a red carpet knows that the six-foot-three blonde—who made a name for herself playing severe, lethal characters like Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, Commander Lyme in The Hunger Games, and Captain Phasma in the latest Star Wars trilogy—is, in actuality, one of the friendliest and easy-to-smile actresses in the business.
That goofy side is on display for the first time in Christie’s decade-long career in a role that Top of the Lake creator Jane Campion wrote specifically for her. Hilmarson will stoop to make friends with a dog, and does her best to crack the hard nut that is Elisabeth Moss’s Robin Griffin. But Christie is still right to distance herself a bit from Hilmarson—because, like everything in Campion’s work, this bright and cheery constable has a darker side.
Moss herself is fond of repeating Campion’s thesis statement for creating Top of the Lake, an ongoing dark feminist drama disguised as a crime story which follows Detective Griffin from a small New Zealand town in Season 1 to the faster-paced dangers of Sydney, Australia, in Season 2. “The placid lake of Season 1,” Moss says, paraphrasing Campion, “hides the danger underneath. But while Season 1 dealt with the wildness without, this year we’re tackling the wildness within.” And indeed, the second season of the critically acclaimed drama—which airs six new episodes on three consecutive nights starting Sunday, September 10, on Sundance—brilliantly juxtaposes the gray, ordered facade of a city like Sydney with the messy, violent passions of the people who inhabit it.
Still licking her wounds from the trauma of Season 1 (the loose ends of which are brilliantly tied up via heartbreaking flashback and a harrowing guest appearance in Season 2), Robin once again serves as avenging angel—this time for a young Asian sex worker who washes up on a Sydney beach inside a suitcase. “Hello, darling,” she murmurs to the mutilated corpse. “Do you want to tell me what you saw?” But while Griffin has always had an easier time tenderly connecting with the dead, the second installment of the series pushes her, hard, out of her comfort zone when she is reunited with Mary, the long-lost teenaged daughter whom she gave up for adoption (played by Campion’s real-life daughter Alice Englert) and Mary’s parents (played by Nicole Kidman and Ewen Leslie).
In Mary, a role also specifically written for the actress who plays her, Campion has outdone herself in her ongoing exploration of duality, darkness, and femininity. A smart, damaged, vulnerable, hard-to-love teen, Mary finds herself wrapped up in the case of Robin’s dead girl and dares the audience to sort her into either the hero or villain category. She defies definition, which ultimately is Campion’s finest gift for all of the women in Top of the Lake. “When I took on the role,” Englert says of that at-times monstrous, at-times vulnerable Mary, “I felt like that was my challenge—to root for her. And I didn’t know if anyone else would, to be honest.”
Once I had seen the full season of Top of the Lake: China Girl (Sundance initially only set three episodes), I understood Christie’s reluctance to identify too closely with Constable Hilmarson. “I enjoy playing humor very much,” she admits, “but I would hope that I’m not as dark and sad as Miranda is, or struggling with life as much as she is. But she is a character with an open heart, and that is a joy to watch and a joy to play.” Moss also rejoices in getting to play Detective Griffin once more—a role that did a lot to change audiences expectations of what a petite and wide-eyed actress like her can bring to a part like this. TV lovers are quite accustomed, now, to Moss’s steelier edge, having watched her grimly stare down the camera for 10 episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. But way back in 2013, Campion was the first filmmaker to really tap into the dark, messy potential of an actress then best known for playing good girls like the president’s daughter on The West Wing or Don Draper’s protégé (with, O.K., a slight edge) in Mad Men.
How does Jane Campion write such messy, complicated, hard-to-define women? Easy, Moss says. “Every character is an avatar of Jane. Every single one.” When I run this theory by Englert, she laughs in delight. “Yeah—now that you say, what I love about my mom is that sometimes she reminds me of that special energy and passion that you have. That fight in you at like, 12. Hormones haven’t hijacked you and manipulated all of your energy into ridiculous pursuit of procreation. You can see the adult world, but you’re not part of that yet. My mom reminds me of that.”
But for all the room Campion gives her female characters—space to be disasters capable of tight control, or monsters capable of tender heroism—she doesn’t quite afford the male characters of Top of the Lake: China Girl the same dimensionality. Almost every single male character, from customers in the brothel to Mary’s piggish, too-old boyfriend, Robin’s sexist colleagues, her somewhat selfish brother, and her wrapped-up-in-the-murder boss, is either an outright villain, an exploration of frustrated male sexuality, or someone caught in arrested development. There are scant men, other than Mary’s dad, Pyke, worth rooting for. And most of the compelling relationships in Top of the Lake: China Girl are between two women—either mother and daughter or female colleagues. In other words, as Englert puts it, the female issues that are usually the “side salad” of most films and TV (especially in the crime genre) are the “main course” of Top of the Lake.
Rather than reject this critique of the men in Top of the Lake—initially brought to my attention by a male TV critic—Moss and Christie gleefully embrace it. “Another man pointed it out to me,” Moss responds, laughing. “I didn’t notice it either.” Pointing out that it’s usually women who fill the two-dimensional roles while men have the meatier parts to chew on, Moss teases that Top of the Lake was a “taste of your own medicine. How’s that?” Christie also had to have this phenomenon pointed out to her. “I hadn’t noticed at all. A good friend of mine actually said: ‘There is not one likable male character in this.’” Grinning devilishly, she continues: “That’s unlikely, isn’t it? We don’t normally see that in our TV dramas, do we?”
Only Englert is willing to stick up for at least one of her male co-stars. “Pyke is a lovely man! He’s a beautiful character,” she says, heaping praise on her TV dad. He’s played with passive, bearded charm by Ewen Leslie, though some might argue that Pyke is neutered by the fact that his wife (Kidman’s brusque and insecure Julia) has left him for another woman. He’s also constantly capitulating to his willful daughter. And Englert also concedes that there are no unalloyed heroes (of either gender) to be found in Top of the Lake. “I find it really interesting that men want to be so liked. They have to be perfect to be a likable character. It’s like, get used to it. You can be imperfect and still be interesting. They’re asking for too much, these dudes.”
It’s the art of imperfection that Campion has truly perfected in Top of the Lake’s shaggy second season. The mystery of the girl in the suitcase resolves itself, improbably, much the way the first season mystery did, via coincidence and too many connections to Robin’s personal life. But that’s because Campion isn’t as interested in the mystery as she is in the striving, failing, complicated women caught in its orbit. Top of the Lake goes well over the top at times to highlight cartoonish male villainy, and has zero qualms about leaving certain threads dangling. But at its beating heart, this is a story of a girl caught between two mothers—which Campion can’t help but make intensely personal by casting her own daughter at the center of this unconventional love triangle, and drafting two of the finest working actresses to play different versions of herself. “What great auteurs do, in my opinion, is show you their vision about what it is to be human,” Christie concludes. In other words, this is just Jane’s world—and we’re all lucky to be in it.