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Top of the Lake's gender politics are as subtle as a kick in the knee

Nicole Kidman and Alice Englert.

At one level, Jane Campion's Top of the Lake: China Girl is a thesis on intersectional feminism.

It was a huge couple of weeks for the national sport. In record-breaking Bledisloe Cuppery, the All Blacks beat the bejesus out of the Wallabies amid breathless reporting of players’ off-field shenanigans. There’s been mourning for legendary All Black Colin “Pinetree” Meads and nostalgia for the mythical New Zealand he represented: a place where young people managing to buy a house wasn’t front-page news and a rugby player having an affair was none of our business.
Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It’s also shaping up to being a good few weeks for art. Four years after the first, season two of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake landed in its outlandish antipodean-noir gory glory. Campion is not David Lynch, so no atomic bombs or scenes that make “Got a light?” one of the most terrifying television sentences ever. But there’s a spookily packaged dead body at the centre of Top of the Lake: China Girl too, and the words “She’s gone to Canberra” may become a euphemism for being thrown off a cliff in luggage.

The prostitute of the title washes up on Bondi Beach in a blue suitcase, through a rupture in which her long hair waves like seaweed. As with Twin Peaks, a female body is never just a female body. We’re soon grappling with issues of race, rape, class, gender, reproductive rights and the fallout from a generation of young men brought up on internet porn. At one level, this is a thesis on intersectional feminism.

Elisabeth Moss returns as detective Robin Griffin, still traumatised by a sojourn in New Zealand that involved sexual assault, paedophiles and a commune of often-nude ladies. Back in Sydney, she tells her brother, “I can’t sleep. I’m anxious.” He still kicks her out of his flat. Haunted by the baby girl she once gave up, she can be as near-catatonic as Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper’s freakishly lucky doppelgänger, Dougie Jones. Other times there’s the wary grit and barely contained rage of Offred, Moss’s character in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline Christie.

Robin is trying to reconnect with her daughter, 17-year-old Mary, played with mutinous implacability by Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert. An excellent scrub-faced Nicole Kidman is Mary’s adoptive mother, Julia, who has left her husband, Pyke, for another woman. Pyke is nice, almost suspiciously so for Top of the Lake, where most men are suspect. Mary has no time for Julia’s I-went-to-study-with-Germaine-Greer feminism. Has there been a more lethal teen rejection of a maternal hug than “You are a lezzo and a woman of shallow discrimination who may want to f--- me, too”.

Mary tests the elasticity of her privileged adoptive parents’ liberalism to snapping point by taking up with a shady older lover. “Puss” is a David Lynch-worthy German Marxist feminist former junior professor from Leipzig. So he says. He also conveniently owns the brothel at the centre of the case. Mary invites him to dinner. Cue scenes of middle-class domestic guerrilla warfare in which kitchen drawers become weaponised and that artefact of perennial transtasman dispute, the pavlova, comes to a sticky end. More welcome light relief is provided by rookie cop Miranda (Game of Thrones’ towering Gwendoline Christie), whose admiration for Robin is sweet and slightly stalkerish.

This season is slicker and less Kiwi gothic, though things go feral again in episode two during a flashback to Robin’s romantic disaster before she left New Zealand.

She declares herself celibate, but is still hit on, often over a festering corpse, by everyone from the coroner to a fellow cop on Bondi Beach. The gender politics in Top of the Lake are as subtle as a kick in the knee. But this season is, so far, terrific. And in the middle of an election campaign during which the words “sexism row” have featured prominently, maybe we can all do with a brush-up.

TOP OF THE LAKE: CHINA GIRL, Sky UKTV, Tuesday, 9.30pm.

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.