Review: Top of the Lake China Girl

Elisabeth Moss in Top of the Lake China Girl

Top of the Lake China Girl was part disappointment and part perfection. There were far too many crazy or near crazy characters and far too much inexplicable behavior from the closer to sane characters. Beware the spoilers.

Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a Detective Constable, returns to Sydney, Australia after the marvelous first season of Top of the Lake, which was filmed in New Zealand. She has the address of the daughter she gave up for adoption 17 years ago. She writes to the parents asking to meet her daughter.

Ewen Leslie and Nicole Kidman in Top of the Lake China Girl

The parents are Pyke (Ewen Leslie) and Julia (Nicole Kidman). They’ve recently separated because Julia fell in love with a woman named Isadore (Marg Downey). Pyke is a steady sort of guy, an accepting parent. Julia is prone to overblown emotions and scenes, particularly since the daughter Mary (Alice Englert) is in that stage in life where girls hate their mother. Julia seems too fragile for normal life and falls apart over everything. Isadore’s only words are straight out of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Pyke and Julia agree Robin can meet Mary. Robin and Mary begin a slow journey toward getting to know each other.

David Dencik and Alice Englert in Top of the Lake China Girl

Seventeen year old Mary is convinced she’s in love with Alexander, also called Puss (David Dencik). This guy is so far beyond creepy, it’s just ridiculous that a 17 year old girl would choose to be anywhere near him. He runs a brothel filled with Thai prostitutes. He claims he helps them. He also runs a baby breeding factory using Thai girls as surrogates for desperate couples who are willing to break the law to get a child.

Which brings us to the crime introduced at the beginning of the 6 episode series. The body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi beach in a suitcase. Even before the police figure out who she is we learn from a group of losers who frequent the prostitutes that Cinnamon (Thien Huong Thi Nguyen) has gone missing. This especially upsets Brett (Lincoln Vickery). Brett is in love with Cinnamon and is convinced she is in love with him because he pays for GFE, or girlfriend experiences with her. After he realizes she’s dead he has long conversations with her apparition in his room. Cinnamon attends these conversations naked. Because she loves him. A crazy man.

Cinnamon was a surrogate, 17 weeks pregnant. We meet the couple who are the parents of the baby Cinnamon carried. The wife was confined to a psych ward when Cinnamon stopped responding to her calls. A crazy woman.

Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline Christie in Top of the Lake China Girl

Robin gets the Cinnamon case but is forced to work with a fangirl rookie named Miranda (Gwendoline Christie). Miranda claims to be pregnant by their boss Adrian (Clayton Jacobson). Actually, Miranda and Adrian are illegally using one of the Thai surrogates to have a baby. Miranda is very strange. Not crazy, but strange. Robin hates working with her. She can’t do anything right.

One way or another, almost everyone is a mother or wants to be one. It leads them all to enormous bad decisions. That includes Robin.

Robin’s most questionable decision has her drunk and muddle-headed when the climactic moments of the last episode arrive.

One thing Robin, Pyke and Julia all agree on is that Puss is bad news. They cannot get Mary to see it. She wants to marry him. She wants to become a sex worker for him. She almost gets killed because of him. She still clings to him. Yuk. I could never make sense out of why she was obsessed with this disgusting man.

As Robin digs further into the case of the girl in the suitcase, she realizes Puss is involved, and by extension Mary is in danger.

Speaking of danger, David Wenham from season 1 was back. He and Robin were adversaries in a court case over Robin’s time in New Zealand. The scene between them was one of the most exciting in Top of the Lake China Girl. 

Some parts of this season worked, like the scene between David Wenham and Elisabeth Moss I just mentioned. Some parts of this season were confusing. Character motivations were murky to me. The events, the storyline, seemed improbable, especially as the cops closed in on a killer in the last episode.

The actors, particularly Elisabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman, gave their best with what they were given. But what they were given wasn’t as compelling as I’d hoped.

Nicole Kidman has always been beautiful. I’m not objectifying her by saying that; it’s simply a fact. With the curly explosion of gray hair she’s wearing in this series she’s more beautiful than I’ve ever seen her. More women should let their hair get gray.

I loved seeing Sydney and Bondi beach. The cinematography was beautiful, especially the parts filmed near the ocean. The early scenes where the woman in the suitcase was tossed into the ocean were stunning in composition. There were brief flashbacks to the gorgeous locations in New Zealand. Look again at the composition of the image up top of Elisabeth Moss in an empty cafe. The excellent imagery throughout the series does pull you in.

Top of the Lake China Girl was created by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. Jane Campion did some of the directing. Jane Campion’s work leaves things unsaid, leaves motivations unspoken. I’ve noticed that in the past. My high expectations for Top of the Lake China Girl made me forget that. Her work haunts you – it stays with you for years afterwards. Perhaps my complaints about the inexplicable parts of Top of the Lake China Girl will be the very things that stay with me, keep me thinking. However, right now, I think Top of the Lake China Girl should have been much better than it was.

5 thoughts on “Review: Top of the Lake China Girl”

  1. I think you mean David Wenham not Peter Mullan.

    I thought China Girl was shockingly bad. The last episode had me shouting at my TV because nothing anybody did made sense dramatically or emotionally.

    The only thing I liked about the series was Nicole Kidman’s hair which I am happy to believe is what she keeps under her blonde do.

  2. Absolutely awful. The most disappointing show I have seen in years. Had high expectations after the first series, but didn’t find a single character to be even mildly believable. The portrayal of almost all the male characters – the police and especially the plain silly bunch of younger guys talking about sex workers in their internet cafe – was just idiotic. They were all ludicrous. The female parts were equally appalling. Nicole Kidman was the only credible character or credible performance, though I’d probably give an honourable mention to David Dencik who was believably creepy. As for the two main characters – if you can’t do an Australian accent, don’t try. Even in the first series, I thought it would have been better to invent a back story that explained Elisabeth Moss’s accent, but in this series it was just silly.

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