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'Top of the Lake' is an Engaging Misstep

Parisa Taghizadeh/Sundance Channel

Every boost to the New Zealand tourist trade from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is endangered by the doominess of Top of the Lake, a Sundance series that has run three of its seven episodes so far. It's an arresting show when it gets out of doors, with bare mountains as far as the eye can see, and dark, ruffled lakes resting at their feet like guard dogs. There’s even a golden meadow called Paradise. On the other hand, Paradise is inhabited by a band of amiable but daft women who seek healing and who live in shipping containers flown in for them. This group is headed by someone called G.J., who is Holly Hunter in a Rapunzel wig turned witchy grey, and with a croaking voice that might be Regan in The Exorcist. So far, Hunter has had little to do but sit around and utter runic comments. There must be more to come. But if she is restrained, there is always the seething Peter Mullan, a better actor than he is required to be in Top of the Lake, which has cast him as a wild, law-unto-himself father whose pregnant 12-year-old daughter has gone missing—not that he seems worried.

Top of the Lake is written and directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis. That’s reason enough for taking it seriously, but for being disappointed too. No one could charge Campion with consistency. When she is good she is special: The Piano, In the Cut, and Bright Star. But The Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke are previous miscalculations.

The storyline in this miniseries is trying to be a thriller: There’s a murder in the first episode as well as the child in trouble. There’s even a female cop from Sydney, Australia, who has come to be with her dying mother, but who assumes a considerable role in the local police investigation. Jurisdiction? Forget about it, and concentrate on Elisabeth Moss in the part, her intense sexual-romantic confusion, and her vague intimation of something so strange coming it might be occult. The show had some good reviews, and surely Campion deserves respect, but I don’t think she’s the natural director for a suspenseful storyline. The mad community of women in their containers is a threat of some feminist outburst still to come—there were such things in The Portrait of a Lady when a good cast was doing its best to deliver the complexity of a James’ novel.

Parisa Taghizadeh/Sundance Channel
Peter Mullan as Matt Mitchmam 

My guess would be that the last four episodes will become crazier, and less concerned with believability. Still, this New Zealand has an awesome gloom, Elisabeth Moss is a pained, enigmatic beauty, and Peter Mullan is a guy you wouldn’t want to meet on a lonely path with only the mountains and the lakes to see what he might do. Mullan is playing the part in Scots, which is not always easy to hear, but he is one of our great acting presences. Just think of him in Miss Julie, The Claim, Red Riding, and Tyrannosaurand then there’s The Magdalene Sisters and Neds, which he directed. He knows the monstrousness in people; we believe he has been there. But has he come back?

A different breed of monster figures in Phil Spector, an HBO movie written and directed by David Mamet, which concentrates on the interaction of Spector (Al Pacino) and Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), who defended him against the charge of having murdered a pick-up, and would-be actress, Lana Clarkson. Much has been said about the “accuracy” of this movie, and the odd way in which the real-life Baden (a consultant on the program) was able to finesse the lawyer-client relationship in prolonged dialogue scenes between herself and Spector. It’s a shaky set-up aggravated by a strange disclaimer before the film and Mamet’s hope that we regard it as “a story.”

But cinematically, Mamet’s right, and this may be his best film. Only on those grounds can one excuse Al Pacino’s “Actors Studio” Spector, which can be chased from your mind by just one glimpse of the real Phil. That man may have been unkindly raised, victimized by his early fame; he may even be not-guilty in the Clarkson case. But he has a face from hell such as might stare out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Pacino’s acting is both monstrous and absorbing, and that fits Mamet’s sense of modern mythology and the legend of the Minotaur in his cave.

Very little of Phil Spector takes place in court. There is no recreation of the crime. But there is a comprehensive feeling for the idea of a lair. There are two versions of it: a huge, nearly empty office space where the defense prepares, and the rich clutter of Spector’s house, in which every piece of décor speaks to his grandiose and childish imagination. Mamet—who has not hitherto shown a pronounced visual or cinematic imagination—films these places in wide-angle shots that stretch the space and with camera movements that give the feeling of a labyrinth.

This has nothing to do with the case, but the use of design and matching lenses is as true to megalomania as the look of Citizen Kane. It is beautiful. The production design is by Patrizia von Brandenstein. She has been Milos Forman’s designer over the years (she won an Oscar for Amadeus), but her other works include Silkwood, Billy Bathgate, and the recent remake of All the King’s Men—that was not a good film, but its production design and pewter-colored look were outstanding. Of course, when production design is the best thing about a movie we’re all in trouble.

But here’s where Phil Spector is such a pleasant surprise. The real Spector may have been a genius in his command of an enveloping and inspirational sound. Many of the songs are classics, and many singers and songwriters have said how good he was. The “wall of sound” dream he pursued has melodramatic meaning: it was awe-inspiring, worshipful music; the wall was as commanding as the black obelisk in 2001. There was a heady megalomania in the music and the arranged sound that was Spector’s emotional forte. That’s how “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” is an ersatz spiritual exultation, lonesome yet triumphant. And that’s what Mamet has brought to life in the film. Its psychotic decor is exactly right for the self-pitying throb in Spector’s head—it has the rapture and the dread. So forget the silly controversy. This is a real movie and an authentic monster.