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TV Review: Elisabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman in ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’ on SundanceTV

Elisabeth Moss has had quite a year. In the spring, in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she gave uncanny immediacy to the plight of her character, Offred, who was defined — unwillingly — by her potential fertility. Moss’ quest to illuminate the narrowness of Offred’s choices and the magnitude of her rage was aided immeasurably by the direction of Reed Morano, who also served as an executive producer on the Hulu drama.

With another exceptional director, Jane Campion, Moss has found an even rarer alchemy. In “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” her immersive and moving emotional arc — which also deals with fertility, loss and constricting gender roles — is woven into a crime thriller, a format Campion uses to explore a series of pointed questions. She and fellow director Ariel Kleiman do so with cool intelligence and finely wrought sensitivity, qualities that make it easy to live with the few elements of the drama that don’t quite come together.

Top of the Lake: China Girl,” which takes place four years after the original series, is about a lot of things: What it is to be a parent or to want a child — and how wrenching it is to crave a connection with a child who has turned away. The six-episode limited series also examines what it feels like for a woman to be viewed through the lens of her sexual availability, her looks and her ability or desire to become pregnant. Once again, “Top of the Lake” is unusual in that it gives unquestioned primacy to thorny, ambiguous questions that surface constantly in almost every woman’s life.

Moss’ character, Australian police detective Robin Griffin, is deeply damaged, but she also exerts the uncompromising power of a woman who is unwilling to be silenced or ignored (except when it suits her to seem invisible). Campion gives almost every facet of the character room to breathe, and Moss’ ability to inhabit the exceptional range and complexity of Robin’s emotional states — from shock and rage to grief-stricken dislocation and sensual pleasure — is nothing short of mesmerizing.

She works a case that grows increasingly complicated after a body washes up on an Australian beach, a scenario has its share of harrowing moments. At night, sleep isn’t just hard to come by — it’s filled with nightmares that delve into the wounds of her past and the fears of her present. But such is the character’s magnetism and Moss’ skill that viewers are likely to follow her anywhere, even down the darkest rabbit hole.

This time around, Robin’s investigation leads her to meet a group of sex workers in Sydney, a network of parents willing to pay large sums to surrogate mothers, and the family of her own daughter, who was adopted just after her birth. As viewers learned in the first season, Robin became pregnant via rape, and the damage men do to women — sexually and emotionally — is very much on the minds of Campion and her co-writer, Gerard Lee.

Yet there’s nothing didactic or polemical about “Top of the Lake”: Its quietly rebellious act is to treat toxic masculinity as something that hurts both men and women. It matter-of-factly deals with the kinds of sexism and harassment that women have to spend a good amount of mental energy negotiating daily. One of Robin’s supervisors routinely asks her out, and she has to treat every rejection delicately, unsure of what his response might be. One of his buddies laughs off the fact that the guy who wants a date tends to “obsess”; Robin’s face transmits a range of reactions, from fear to cynicism to exhaustion, all of which bypass the supervisor and his friend.

Each woman on the screen has made a different set of bargains with the more powerful men (and women) around her, and “Top of the Lake” treats few of these people in an overtly judgmental fashion. A group of men who gather at an urban cafe to compare notes on their favorite sex workers are treated as generally normal and eclectic human beings. “Top of the Lake” leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether a man leaving an online review of the “good noises” a woman makes during paid sex is a symptom of deeper and more unpleasant social dynamics. 

It’s the lived-in, specific qualities of “Top of the Lake” that set it apart. It has the sturdy basic building blocks of a cop drama, but it puts a funky, unique spin on each of them: The mismatched cops at the center of the drama — Robin is paired with a green, earnest police officer played by “Game of Thrones” cast member Gwendoline Christie — develop a very unsettled and prickly rapport over time, and that friendship eventually contains moments of strange camaraderie as well as painful revelations. The avuncular coroner who examines the bodies in the case could star in his own spin-off series — that’s how humane and watchable he is from his first moment on screen.

It’s worth noting, however, that though the Asian sex workers Robin encounters are depicted with dignity and respect, white women are the center of a drama with the subtitle “China Girl.” And at times, it’s clear that Campion and Lee aren’t tremendously interested in cleanly executing the mechanics of a police investigation in a logical or measured fashion. The show’s emphasis on the depths of its characters’ psychological dilemmas makes for some rushed or wobbly plot turns and motivations that could be more fully fleshed out.

That Robin’s biological daughter, Mary (an exceptional Alice Englert), would have issues with her parents is understandable — but the extent to which she rebels in “Top of the Lake” feels a bit melodramatic and unearned. The most repetitive and increasingly ineffective part of the drama revolves around Mary’s boyfriend, Alexander (David Dencik). This character, who’s also called “Puss,” is a skeevy, pedantic creep who manipulates and uses the women around him while professing to rebel against the bourgeoisie. He’s a type, not quite a multi-dimensional human being, and thus it’s not long before Alexander’s ability to pull the string of more fully realized characters grows tiresome.

But the reason to watch “Top of the Lake” is not to see a perfectly constructed criminal cat-and-mouse chase. It’s to see the drama’s star and directors lock into a contemplative and perceptive groove, one in which a woman’s challenging career is depicted as both a salve and an escape. This empathic and worthwhile project is aided by a terrific performance from Nicole Kidman, who plays Julia, Mary’s adoptive mother.

Nicole Kidman as Julia, Ewen Leslie as Pyke - Top Of The Lake: China Girl _ Season 2, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: SundanceTV/See-Saw Films

Kidman’s character is a walking exposed nerve, a woman whose self-worth is dangerously but understandably tied up in the quality of her connection to her daughter. In a quieter but no less important role, Ewen Leslie is subtle and powerful as Julia’s patient husband.

Pregnancies, parenthood and the costs of family ties: These are the matters that “Top of the Lake” injects with both urgency and hope. It’s a potent, and at times deeply poetic, concoction.

For Variety critic Sonia Saraiya’s “Top of the Lake: China Girl” stories, featuring interviews with Campion, Moss and Christie, look here and here

The first season of “Top of the Lake” is now on Hulu; “Top of the Lake: China Girl” will be available there in its entirety on Sept. 13. 

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