'Top of the Lake: China Girl': Elisabeth Moss in a crazy crime drama

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline Christie in “Top of the Lake: China Girl.” (Photo: SundanceTV)

In 2013, Top of the Lake was a highly praised crime drama set in New Zealand starring Elisabeth Moss as a cop, and overseen by director Jane Campion (The Piano). Now comes Top of the Lake: China Girl — with Campion and Moss still on board, set four years later, and relocated to Sydney, Australia. Unlike the original Lake, which was a hardboiled detective story exploring feminism and mysticism, the new Lake — premiering Sunday on SundanceTV — is a murder mystery with crazy coincidences and loopy sex subplots.

The setup for this Lake is that a body in a suitcase washes ashore on a Sydney beach. Moss’s police detective Robin Griffin is handling the case, along with Gwendoline Christie — Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones — who plays a cop named Miranda who’s assigned to be Robin’s partner in investigating the death. Cut to a suburban home, where a squabbling, separated couple — played by Nicole Kidman and Ewen Leslie — are united in worry about the hostile behavior of their adoptive daughter, Mary (Alice Englert, who’s also Campion’s daughter), who is attracted to an older, weird, possibly violent man named Alexander, who is also known as Puss (David Dencik).

What’s the connection between Moss’s plot and Kidman’s? Teenaged Mary is Robin’s biological daughter, whom she gave up for adoption when she was herself a teenager. And Mary’s Alexander teaches English to Asian girls working in a local brothel, one of whom may be the corpse in the suitcase. This is the first stretch in believability in China Girl: A prime suspect in Robin’s investigation just happens to be the boyfriend of her daughter?

The opening hour of this six-episode series is very strong — the arguments between Mary and Kidman’s Julia are devastatingly painful and realistic. Kidman, sporting gray corkscrew curls and thoroughly inhabiting the role of a middle-aged academic who has thrown over her husband in favor of a female lover, is especially good. (Kidman occupies the same strong eccentric woman place that Holly Hunter held in the first Lake.) Unfortunately, the rest of China Girl begins to slip and slide into something else entirely.

This is the kind of thriller that asks us to believe that Moss’s Robin, whom we are pointedly shown is a tough fighter of a cop, could be overpowered and nearly strangled by a man in a wheelchair — who rises out of his chair, pulls off his belt, and wraps it around her neck before she begins resisting. Robin escapes death by brandishing a cigarette lighter, which she uses not to burn her attacker but to reach around him and set fire to some curtains behind her — an awfully roundabout means of defense. Furthermore, Lake suggested to me that there are vast cultural differences between America and Australia. In Lake, an employee (in this case, Robin) feels free to ask her boss, in the most casual, conversational manner, whether he frequents brothels. Sure, he replies, “I used to.” Is this typical of your chats with the boss? Another police officer asks Robin to have an affair with him in a room full of their colleagues, and everyone falls silent, gazing and patiently waiting for Robin to respond.

The ultra-creepy Puss holds an unaccountable spell over Mary. Initially, their union makes some sense: You feel that maybe, spending a lot of time with a stringy-haired lout who lives in a bordello spouting anarchistic philosophy — hey, it’s just Mary’s way of rebelling against her square parents, right? But after Puss insults the adoptive parents viciously, paws Mary in public to the point where he is thrown out of a party, and turns her out as a prostitute on the street, I must admit I hooted in disbelief when Mary asked her parents, in all seriousness, “Do you like him?”

China Girl takes a few plot twists to keep the murder mystery going, but it becomes obscured by the constant insults and injuries suffered by Robin. Moss, who’s suffered quite enough in The Handmaid’s Tale, endures even more pain here for reasons less coherently explained. Moss gives a terrific performance, but it’s not enough to keep this Top of the Lake afloat.

Top of the Lake: China Girl airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.

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