Friday 14 June 2013

Top of the Lake / The Fall

A pregnant twelve-year-old girl walks into a lake that lies mysteriously and dangerously in the midst of a New Zealand town. A woman who is well-connected is murdered in Belfast, and the initial investigation doesn't go anywhere. This is how it starts; in both cases, outsiders are drawn into these cases and solving them is made more difficult by the existing power relations, the misogyny and corruption in the communities where the investigated crimes happened. Elisabeth Moss' Robin fled New Zealand for Australia and is now tasked to investigate who the father of Tui's child is, and leads the search for her once she goes missing. Gillian Anderson's Stella Gibson is asked to review the investigation of the murder but connects the dots once a second woman is killed, and realizes that she is chasing a serial killer. What Allan Cubitt's The Fall (a five-parter that will likely receive more episodes next year) and Jane Campion's  Top of the Lake have in common is that the crimes themselves are misogynist, but they are also rooted in a local patriarchal culture that facilitates violence against women, and the two female detectives heading the respective investigations uncover both - Robin, because she herself once fell victim to it and finds it impossible to ignore the wounds of the past once she returns, Stella, because she leads an unapologetically liberated life and can't help but call out hypocrisy and ignorance when she finds it.
The connection between culture and crime are expressed differently in both shows. Top of the Lake makes the radical choice of juxtaposing the male-dominated culture that is almost palpable the moment Robin walks into the police department (her boss seems to enjoy a semi-friendly relationship with local crime lord Matt Mitchum, who also happens to be Tui's father), or into bars, with a separatist community of women who carved out a piece of Matt's land, much to his chagrin, to escape their own restricting or abusive relationships; Robin soon starts a new relationship with her former boyfriend, who spent years in a Thai prison and now seems incapable of living within the figurative walls and rules of Top of the Lake (so instead he lives in a tent, in the woods). This creation of an outside, and characters who either choose or can't help but exist there, makes the brutality of the inside more visible - it's almost as if the violence is inescapable for some of the characters, a burden they carry and will inevitably pass on to the next generation. There is an initial focus on Matt Mitchum as the villain, the father of Tui and suspected father of her child, but as disgusting as what he does is, he is also a complex character, someone who keeps up traditions he inherited from his forefathers (and he considers the land an extension of his family and himself, so his rules are written on the land and those living on it must stick to them - an idea that can't co-exist with any modern conception of law and justice) but also struggles with his emotions.
There are also some parallels between Top of the Lake and recent ITV production Broadchurch, starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman - even though Broadchurch wasn't as interested in uncovering the power structure of its community, there is also an eerie sense of a spiral once the characters start to uncover the secrets of the town, and an inevitability of something terrible lying at the end of it, something that will forever change the community and the characters themselves. And yet, they can't possibly stop once they've started to look, regardless of the consequences, because it is in their nature to follow the truth wherever it leads them. Whether and how the communities will recover from the shock is a question that concerns them as citizens but not as detectives - even less so if they enter from the outside. Robin's quest for the truth, the quiet escalation of it, ends in a terrible revelation, the result of unevenly divided power and a structure that brutally preys on the weak and helps well-connected psychopaths and criminals to succeed. Robin wreaks righteous havoc and slays the monster, but the enabling and complicit land that birthed it will take much longer to change.
There is no question about who the monster in The Fall is. We follow him as much as the woman chasing him; we see him stalk his victims, emerge himself in their lives, take keepsakes from them before brutally murdering them. There is a terrifying intimacy in how close The Fall forces us to get to Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), in forcing us to view his victims through his eyes. It's a difficult balance to strike for a series that also doesn't want to objectify the female victims as Paul does - and that balance is achieved whenever we follow Stella in her investigation of him, through her struggle with both him and the institution she has to work through. When someone in the department insists on calling Paul's victim "innocent", she calls out the disgusting hypocrisy of creating the idea that a woman who wears more revealing clothes or is drunk is less innocent a victim of a crime than one who doesn't - “The media loves to divide women into virgins and vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them.” The only productive relationships Stella develops is with the pathologist (Archie Panjabi), who offers invaluable insights, and PSNI Ferrington (Niamh McGrady), whom she recruits as an assistant and who proves to be more motivated and loyal than her colleagues. She confronts her male colleague with the fact that he feels uncomfortable with the idea of a woman choosing to have a one-night stand without any emotional involvement - "Woman fucks man. Woman subject, man object. That's not so comfortable for you." - and her personal politics, which she defends eloquently in the face of an institutional culture that is constantly portrayed as corrupt, involved in all kinds of dealings, drugs and prostitution, protective of well-connected criminals, become even more relevant when Paul is revealed to be motivated by misogyny as well. He has a concept of innocence that ends when women become successful and sexual on their own terms, and while Stella - not yet - manages to slay her monster, she does tell him that he isn't special, that he is just a misogynist sadist who, rather than creating the masterpiece that he seems to consider his crimes, has made too many careless mistakes to evade identification and capture for much longer. It's a brilliant refutation of the rampant and tired trope of the "fascinating" male serial killer. 

The Fall (2013-), created by Allan Cubitt, starring Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan, Niamh McGrady, Bronagh Waugh, John Lynch, Archie Panjabi, Siobhan McSweeney. 

Top of the Lake (2013), created by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, starring Elisabeth Moss, Jacqueline Joe, David Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright, Holly Hunter, 

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