Paradise lost in Queenstown

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: Jane Campion's ambitious new TV project showcases the breathtaking beauty of Queenstown while exploring its more sinister side.
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: Jane Campion's ambitious new TV project showcases the breathtaking beauty of Queenstown while exploring its more sinister side.

In an old small town pub, noisy groups of wild-looking men lean against a wooden bar sipping tall brown bottles of beer.

The racket dies down and a shaggy-haired man in a long coat swaggers up to stand on a chair, to address the motley crew.

"This is a small town and someone knows something. If you are that someone," he snarls in a thick Scottish accent, animalistic and fierce, "then you deserve to die."

Meet Matt Mitcham: Drug lord, small town gangster and father of 12-year-old Tui who, following the discovery that she is five months pregnant (father unknown), disappears after attempting to take her own life.

Brought well and truly to life by Peter Mullan (War Horse, Tyrannosaur, Trainspotting), Matt Mitcham is one of the lead characters in Jane Campion's newest creation, Top of the Lake, a six-part TV series filmed in the stunning natural surrounds of Queenstown, Glenorchy and Moke Lake. Beginning this week on UKTV, it screened recently in its entirety at Sundance Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival to critical acclaim.

The fictional name for the main town is Laketop, a corrupt place full of secrets - its pure environment a haunting contrast to the town's seedy underbelly, resulting in an atmosphere akin to cult classic Twin Peaks.

Back on set in the pub, a grey long-haired Campion, eyes framed with black-rimmed glasses, approaches Mullan, relaxed but authoritative, to suggest a new take.

Campion, known for her experimental finesse and hailed by the Top of the Lake actors as somewhat of a directing prodigy, is on duty for half of the six episodes - the other three are directed by Australian Garth Davis. She also shared the script writing with her old film school pal, Gerard Lee, who she's teamed with before in Sweetie.

The actors, however, were handpicked by Campion, from New Zealand and Australia, America and Scotland, the lineup a veritable feast of acting talent: Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Holly Hunter (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady) David Wenham (Lord of the Rings, Australia) and New Zealand's own Robyn Malcolm and Jay Ryan, to name a few.

The story, says Campion was borne of this landscape, which she visits regularly from her home in Australia. "For me, when I go into that bush, I feel like I am in the most beautiful living room in the world. I just loll around on the moss and feel completely healed by nature. I really treasure it and that is one of the reasons I wanted to tell a story around it."

Campion is one of the many film writers and directors to embrace the liberty that long-form television brings. "In film it feels like you have to be very safe to attract audiences, whereas there is a feeling with television that you can be edgy. I felt like it was a great area for me to go to get more freedom."

Top of the Lake uses the vehicle of a classic "whodunnit" to explore a range of ideas: Matriarchy versus patriarchy, rape, ageing, enlightenment and love. Campion says the funding and freedom given by the BBC hasmade her more able to realise her vision for the project.

"The BBC's whole mission is to do cutting-edge drama and they were saying, ‘Go as extreme as you can.' Here the invitation was to be challenging, to be human but to be explorative."


Explorative she has been, particularly in her creation of a post-menopausal women's camp of "unf..kable" women who have taken up residence at nearby Paradise to gain enlightenment from guru GJ (Hunter), a guru based on real life figure UG Krishnamurti.

"GJ is loosely based on the most amazing person I have ever met, that some people might call enlightened. I think everyone is quite up for this idea now of what an enlightened being is. Krishnamurti's personality was a bit challenging and naughty and he was really fierce and so I gave those qualities to the Holly Hunter guru. I think that world of the women's camp is going to be very interesting and surprising."

Hunter, she says, was terrified of the role: "She said ‘I don't think I can do it' but . . . she seemed to just find a way."

The women's camp provides a fascinating contrast to the male-controlled society of Laketop and a challenge to Mitcham who believes he is entitled to the land the camp is built on. "[GJ] looks so fragile and incapable of controlling anyone and Mr Alpha Male goes ‘What has a little American dwarf got over these women?' It intrigues him."

A director himself, Mullan is impressed by the risks taken in both the script and the direction of Top of the Lake.

"This one has no safety net, none at all. From the casting, to the way [Campion is] shooting it, to the changes she makes on the day. There's no play safe and do it as it's written, it's just, ‘Let's just see where we go today.' It is very exciting."

Scottish-born Mullan is equally impressed by the calibre of Kiwi actors. "They are coming from an altogether fresher place. It has amazed me, I haven't met a single Kiwi actor on set who is self-conscious about their image, everyone is doing what is required for Jane and for Garth."

He gives special praise to on-screen girlfriend Robyn Malcolm. "She is just the best, just wonderful. There is a big love scene that goes on between them, well as much as this guy can do before he runs her over, and she has just blown me away on every level."

Moss plays Robin Griffin, a Laketop-born detective who becomes involved in Tui's case after returning to the town to visit her dying mother, uncomfortably bridging the two opposing worlds of the town and the women's camp. Campion says Moss took to the role with gusto.

"In Lizzie's role, we really did expect to have an Australian . . . but Lizzie sent us an audition and for the first time we found ourselves really riveted. It is a bit like the Mona Lisa quality - she holds you and she is mysterious. It is a great role for her because it is so different from the Peggy character in Mad Men that she is so loved for and it enables her to show enormous new capacity. After working with her now for quite a few months I am addicted, I just want to see what she is going to do tomorrow."

The other shining star in the group is Tui, played by Jacqueline Joe. Found at a swimming pool by a casting scout, she had no acting experience, not even a school play. When Campion saw her audition she knew she was the one. "She has this capacity to go inside the script," says Campion. "When she gets interrogated about the bump on the tummy, she starts to cry. She just does it and you go ‘What?' It just seems to come to her, she has that emotional capacity."

It was one of many risks taken in the spirit of the series - the result of which could have meant only two outcomes, says the outspoken Mullan. "It's an extraordinary script, it really is. This is one of those ones, it will either be brilliant or it will be s**t. I don't think this is a project that I think can just be OK because it is seriously brave. It is full of all that Campionesque wonderful, slightly off-centre weirdness. She is a weird girl, but she writes good weird!"

Top of the Lake begins on Monday March 25, 8.30pm, UKTV.

Sunday Star Times