The second season of ‘Top of the Lake’ once again battles male sexual and psychological violence
The deep vein of misogyny unsettled me early in Jane Campion’s new miniseries, Top of the Lake: China Girl, in which Elisabeth Moss reprises her role as Robin Griffin, a detective whose mission, once more, is to battle male sexual and psychological violence, this time around inner Sydney.
This sequel is faster paced, grittier and wittier than Campion’s original series, filmed in New Zealand and released in 2013, and uses its wry humour to deliver profound insights into men’s privilege.
Both seasons are the product of a simpatico creative relationship that explores beyond male and female binaries: Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee, intimate during their film-school days in Sydney more than 30 years ago, often swap gender roles when writing together.
It may have been a ruse to entertain a throng of journalists, but on the day filming of season two wrapped last winter at Bondi Beach, Lee explained he would take the role of a female trapped in a male body during draft script read-throughs, while Campion would stomp about swearing, trying on what Lee called the “horrible male parts”. Campion then turned to Lee, dropped her voice to a deep pitch, and joked, “Shut up, bitch.”
Watching the fruits of the pair’s labour on screen a year later, I consider that perhaps Campion is slyly speaking to me through male form. I recognise an antipodean strain of the ugly male psyche: women crudely objectified as sexual relief for men for whom the gaze of mateship and clenching of male approval is virtually orgasmic. The blokey characters make me feel guilty, even though heterosexual men cast the darkest shadows in this detective story: I’m not straight, but unconscious bias doesn’t necessarily end where sexual orientation begins.
This time, Moss’s Detective Senior Constable Griffin starts out battered and broken, but on past form of character and actor alike we know she will find her mojo. Having recently starred as a fierce resistor of a dystopian regime in the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss makes flesh roles that surmount the structures of male control. Mad Men, for instance, which last month marked ten years since it first went to air, was in some ways less the story of duplicitious advertising agency partner Don Draper, who stole another man’s name, and more about Moss’s Peggy Olson, who rose from being Don’s secretary to making her own name as copy chief.
Griffin now has an eager sidekick in Constable Miranda Hilmarson, played by Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie, who becomes the series’ source of good heart and light. She is wonderfully funny. Dressing for one scene in a spacesuit, Hilmarson notes her gay friends call her a “transvestite rocket man”. Her physical stature and vulnerability worn sleeve-high mark her as a target for male colleagues. “That’s an actual woman, by the way,” a male officer says behind her back.
This is Campion’s universe, so women drive this counter-narrative to male privilege. Campion and Lee write great female roles, ably assisted by Australian director Ariel Kleiman, who helmed four of the six China Girl episodes to Campion’s two, and whose 2015 film Partisan, in which a soulless male cult leader runs a ring of child assassins, was the obverse of the female sanctuary run by mystic GJ (Holly Hunter) in the first Top of the Lake season.
China Girl dissects what feminism means for different generations, yet confounds the assumption millennial women are less inclined to favour the institution of marriage. Nicole Kidman brings a delicious ambiguity to dysfunctional mother Julia, whom her belligerent adopted on-screen teenage daughter, Mary, played by Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert, calls a “lezzo and a woman of shallow discrimination”. Over the dinner table, Julia sets forth her experience as a teacher of high-school revolutionary politics and claims to have had her plans to study in the United Kingdom under Germaine Greer thwarted – but is she delusional and seeking attention for herself, or putting up a formidable front to intimidate a dubious older suitor who wants to marry young Mary?
That suitor is 42-year-old Alexander (Swedish-born Danish actor David Dencik), who surrounds himself with cats. Nicknamed Puss, he lives above a brothel, and claims to be a socialist, but perhaps he owns the joint; it’s not clear in the early episodes. Julia’s husband, Pyke (Ewen Leslie), meanwhile, is a conciliatory figure in their household. Puss and Pyke. What fun Campion and Lee had over their writing table, playing with masculine identity.
Campion’s characters can sometimes be hyperreal, and Puss is a boldly drawn, predatory archetype. He admires Julia for having the “big balls of a new romance” away from her husband, and makes outlandish statements such as “the destiny of man is to enslave women”, while claiming to be a feminist. He gives enslaved female and transgender Asian prostitutes lessons in English with phrases that fetishise male power, and teaches them they are oppressed. But we are also told he gets angry and hurts them, sometimes.
Campion and Lee intend the theme of commercial surrogacy and its legal limits to emerge as a talking point as the series progresses, but it’s the one area where they fail in these six finely crafted episodes. While we will later be introduced to an infertile white middle-class Australian couple desperate for children, with whom we empathise, the show will ultimately fail to clearly flesh out the lives of the surrogates. Indeed, these young Asian women will remain largely one-dimensional and not particularly individuated.
We then meet the hookers’ analogue: a group of privileged, mostly white Australian blokes, who sit around with their laptops and crudely ogle those same sex workers on websites, swapping stories about which ones they’ve paid for sex. They’re a relatable bunch, boasting about chatting-up women, and comically failing under their peers’ challenges. One man is harassed for having a high voice – effeminacy equals weakness – while another is pilloried for lowering himself to running errands for a sex worker, tidily summing up the men’s disdain for equal division of household chores.
In the second episode it becomes apparent to these men salivating over their laptops that one of the female sex workers has probably been stuffed in a suitcase and shoved off a cliff. Here they become less relatable as the disconnect between their male carnality and basic decency and empathy becomes horribly apparent.
Is such misogyny, shocking in its everyday banality, uniquely Australian? Of course not. But there is a recognisable continuum of ferocity unleashed when men feel their privilege is under threat – one that seems particularly prevalent of late in this country.
Recall the tirade of abuse by mostly male commentators against female public figures, such as author and presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied, when she dares suggest “Lest we forget” has broader meaning beyond Aussie men at Gallipoli, or unrelenting attacks on the Australian Human Rights Commission’s former president Gillian Triggs, for essentially speaking up about the treatment of refugees.
Listen as radio demigod Alan Jones urges Julia Gillard be tied in a chaff bag and dumped at sea, or issues his more recent warning to NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian that her head is in a noose.
Campion has said the theme to her series is “whatever you try to sink, rises again”. Misogyny is there, floating in plain sight. It’s a killer.
Top of the Lake: China Girl airs in Australia on BBC First from 20 August.