TOP OF THE LAKE

The mystery/procedural often offers up a strange kind of comfort. Its structure promises that chaos and confusion can be resolved into “order;” mysteries will be solved; we will find out who did it. We might not feel good at the end, but we’ll know.

I got through the final months of writing my book by plowing through the Henning Mankell novels: Wallander, c’est moi.

For me, the best mysteries convey a more thoroughgoing, almost existential unease. Those Scandinavian procedurals are in part so riveting because they often wrangle with broader topics: the sense that cultural change has wrought insurmountable anger. In Jo Nesbø’s dark novels, the protagonist’s investigations initiate such a deep personal unraveling that his job is killing him. That tension between chaos and order worked out in these stories is, for some reason, something I need to witness — even when chaos seems to be winning. These modern mysteries constitute a dark diagnosis of contemporary society’s ills.

But Jane Campion’s 7-hour series Top of the Lake (streaming on Netflix right now, and thank god for that) raises the stakes of the mystery to a new level. At the heart of this story is an almost mythic conflict between gods — a conflict over what it means when a world is made unstable with the appearance of a competing god. The fact that the gods at issue are patriarchal and maternal figures makes the stakes all the higher.  I can’t tell you how much I loved this show, and how unnerving it is.

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At one end of the spectrum is Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), the violent, unpredictable, and Scottish-brogued drug kingpin who lords over Laketop, New Zealand like the vengeful Old Testament God, with his tattooed sons Mark and Luke (above). His third son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), back from prison and disaffected from his father’s world, lives in a tent in the woods and sleeps with the local girls. This may be the best use of the four evangelists’ names in literary history.

The binoculars in Mark’s hand in that photo have spied a new arrival in the town: a group of women with a vaguely cultlike, inscrutable leader named GJ (Holly Hunter) which has purchased a spot on the lake called Paradise that Matt believes is rightly his. Living in empty metal boxes positioned in a circle, the middle-aged women swim naked in the lake, comb one another’s hair, and prowl for sex in town. In between they huddle around the emaciated GJ who, they believe, offers wisdom and the possibility of recovery from their bad relationships with men.

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What turns everyone’s attention away from the faceoff between old and new gods is the fact that Matt’s 12-yr-old mixed-race daughter Tui has walked chest-deep into the freezing lake on her way to school, and that when the school nurse got her out of those wet clothes, she found — almost incomprehensibly — that Tui is five months pregnant.

Which brings detective Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss, aka Peggy Olson from Mad Men) to the scene. Now a specialist in child abuse cases in Sydney, she’s back in town to help care for her dying mother. When she asks Tui to write down the name of the man who impregnated her, the nearly silent child writes, “No one.”

And then, after a visit to GJ and the middle-aged women in Paradise, Tui goes missing.

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Sure, Robin has her suspicions about likely perpetrators. The near-animalistic Matt, Mark, and Luke all live with Tui in their fortified compound and thus make ideal suspects. The little girl would have good reasons to deny (or repress) their rape of her. The town also has the usual kinds of blokey, oversexed, and/or disturbed men who inhabit barstools and dart games in low-level threatening ways.

But a funny thing happens on the way to investigating Tui’s rape and disappearance: with little to go on, the adults get reabsorbed in and distracted by their own dramas. Not least, Robin can hardly see this case without allowing her own bad memories to get in the way, to imagine bad guys who mirror figures in her own past.

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Robin’s obviously maternal feelings toward Tui stand in sharp relief against her own relationship to her mother. Purportedly in town to help in her cancer-striken mother, Robin spends less and less time there, distracted by someone else’s daughter and, gradually, by the feral, razor-thin Johnno who’s haunted by his own demons. Nor is she the only woman in town feeling ambivalent about the mother-daughter dynamic. The women at GJ’s commune abandon themselves to self-care, a self-indulgence made all the more striking by the appearance of a daughter. Most unsentimental of all is the gravelly-voiced haunt of Paradise, GJ herself — who increasingly expresses antipathy toward the “crazy bitches” who want her to mother them.

TOP OF THE LAKE

You might think that a series that fundamentally probes relationships between men and women, parents and children, leaders and followers, rape and consensual sex might have straightforward feminist ends — particularly since it features a protagonist like Robin. But Campion’s goals are far more thoroughgoing than to condemn male violence, no matter how offensive. The women in the show are crippled and isolated by sexual shame and senses of maternal failure. They appear yoked to men in one way or another, even when — like GJ’s followers — they want to be rid of them. In sum, this is exactly what I want to see in female-oriented, female-directed filmmaking: complex stories and characters without simple morals.

This might sound bleak; I haven’t begun to talk about its wicked humor, the extent to which this show elaborates a human comedy as much as its nightmare. But let me assure you, when anchored to a neo-noir whodunit, and when acted so subtly by Moss, Hunter, Mullan, et al. — well, it turns back around into that chaos/order dynamic that we all find weirdly gratifying.

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Campion’s probing of primal myths with all these unpredictable, violent fathers and distant, guarded mothers serves to imagine human society in its darkest terms. They live at the top of the lake, but just as there might be bodies sunk down below, so do memories and histories and secrets swirl in those shadowy waters.

Let’s not forget, after all, how tangled are the Greek myths — the complex tales of parentage, gods raping mortals, bloody patricides, maternal distresses, outlaws and castaways and expatriates. You could say there’s nothing new under the sun, but let me assure you that you need to see how this unfolds.

536522_431891623561435_193783295_nNot to mention the scary possibility raised by Tui’s pregnancy and memories of other rapes long ago: could there be an even darker god lurking out in the woods, a true devil? As Robin and the police stutter around in their investigation, we get that feeling at the back of our necks that something is very wrong in Laketop.

Logging in at 7 hours, this 7-part series isn’t nearly enough. I gobbled it down — as I’m wont to due when a series is available in its entirety like this — but as with the very best series, I’m left with the sense that I missed half of the things that might give me even more appreciation for its depths. In short: I might have to watch it again. You should watch it too.

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You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?