Australian Noir; or, Top of the Lake is not a great example of it

Today, a review of Top of the Lake: China Girl by Amy, an Australian who has actually seen it, with some background feelings from Stephanie and Liz.

Here at No Award we vacillate wildly between ‘I have definitely seen enough evidence that this will be terrible and am preemptively judging it without having consumed it’ and ‘Both of us need to consume this in order to offer our opinions.’ Obviously this process is carried out on a case by case basis.

Stephanie is refusing to watch Top of the Lake: China Girl based on a variety of opinions and reports that she will link below; Liz is probably going to watch it but is not in any hurry. So to complement their prejudgements, today brings a review from Friend of No Award Amy, who has seen all of Top of the Lake: China Girl and did not enjoy it at all.

Amy Says:

I came to the second season of Top of the Lake (TotL) with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. Anything with a mostly white cast calling itself “China Girl” and starting with the body of a Thai sex worker in a suitcase on Bondi Beach was going to need to work hard to prove that it wasn’t a racist mess. Sadly, this season didn’t get anywhere close.

For those unfamiliar with the first season, it was a hard-boiled crime drama set on the southern island of New Zealand, involving paedophile rings, drugs, corrupt police, and of course, this being a Jane Campion production, a focus on the lives of the women in the story.

This season of TotL sees detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) take her strange accent to Bondi Beach, 5 years after the events of the first season. Robin’s joined by the equally oddly-accented Miranda Hilmarson (Gwendoline Christie) in her investigation, while also trying to reconnect with her biological daughter Mary (Alice Englert) in her spare time. Mary’s adoptive mother Julia (Nicole Kidman) and father Pyke (Ewen Leslie) are separating, and the 17-year-old has decided to deal with this by getting herself a 41-year-old boyfriend, Alexander “Puss” (David Dencik).

Everyone’s a mess in their own special way, which in itself can make for compelling, interesting television when handled well. I was even willing to overlook the convenient set of circumstances tying Robin, Miranda, Mary and others to the murdered woman, if the series could provide a respectful and humanising picture of the (supposedly trafficked) Thai women. Given that Campion apparently spent time speaking to sex workers as research for the series (without letting them know what she was doing, though), you would think this would be a significant part of the story.

You’d be wrong.

The Thai sex workers in this season of TotL are depicted as passive, child-like vessels for anxieties about white fertility (an illegal surrogacy plotline), anxieties about white teenagers (Mary’s short foray into sex work at Puss’s coercion), and anxieties about white cishet masculinity (their customers). They serve no function except as a mirror for these white anxieties, worship Puss as some kind of father-figure, and lack any agency in their story’s trajectory. Even their eventual “freedom” at the end of the season is a construct of Puss, and again, appears only to serve as a punishment for Mary (teaching her not to love 41 year old predators), and the rich white women using them as illegal surrogates.

TotL does a few small things well this season. It illustrates the different insidious forms of rape culture and toxic masculinity uncomfortably well. Brett (Lincoln Vickery), the young white man obsessed with the dead woman, hanging out with his STEM uni mates spouting redpill-esque terminology will be familiar to any young woman who spends some time on the internet. Stally (Christiaan Van Vuuren) & Carson (Adam Zwar), the two homicide detectives who apparently “hear a lot of ‘nos’ that actually mean ‘yes’” from women. David Wenham even makes a reappearance, in all his cartoon villain-esque glory. Nevermind Puss’s grooming of Mary.

This depiction of rape culture is fairly standard for a Campion story, though, so it’s certainly not as though TotL is breaking new ground here. Where the series could have provided new and interesting material is in the story of the women doing the sex work, but this is depressingly absent. We find out more about tertiary police characters than we do about any of these women, which left me baffled and bored.

So I guess all I can say is, watch Top of the Lake season 2 if you want to be baffled and bored.

Stephanie Says:

I was always going to preemptively judge this show, even without Amy’s review. Australia is full of amazing noir shows, and excellent cop actors, and we are well known for exploring some devastating business regarding the state of the human condition.

Things that caused me pause to begin with:

Things I wish I was watching instead:

  • Wildside, which aired on Our ABC for three years in the late nineties. I never should have been watching that show, but if you wanna see some gritty Sydney bizzo, Wildside is what you should be watching. I have the DVDs if anyone wants them. Also this is from when my crush on Aaron Pedersen (amazing Indigenous actor) can be dated. Also it’s when I learnt the word ‘twat’. Thanks, Wildside.

Liz Says:

Welp, I’ve changed my mind thanks to Amy’s review, and I’ll continue to not bother with TotL. I’m not that hard up for Aussie crime, not even Aussie crime with Gwendoline “Queen of my Heart” Christie.

This post was conceived when I saw a UK friend mention that he was watching TotL and Cleverman, and remarked that this is a good time for Australian noir. I was surprised at the strength of my initial reaction, which was, “Top of the Lake isn’t Australian, what are you talking about?”

But then I was like, “Well, it’s set in Sydney, and it must have some Australian cast members who aren’t Nicole Kidman.” And it does: two of them. One of whom is Jane Campion’s daughter.

[I wrote that, and then realised that I’d forgotten to include Nicole Kidman. Which I think says a lot: even though her American accent is still pretty shite, she is very much a part of Hollywood and the whole US entertainment industry culture. She sort of circles Australian media, doing the adaptation of Big Little Lies, and now this, but nationality isn’t really part of her public persona.]

[It’s complicated?]

“What makes a story or piece of media Australian?” is a fun question that especially comes up a lot in undergraduate arts degrees. Is it koalas and the Outback? Helicopter shots of Sydney Harbour? Is it an attitude? Experience?

What makes it complicated, of course, is that Australia is a nation with a bit of a chip on its shoulder about our national identity being defined in relation to other countries. See, for example, the creation of this very blog. A lot of it comes back to the idea of the cultural cringe, an inferiority complex about our culture, joined by the idea that our cultural artefacts only have value when they’re appreciated by other countries, or that non-Australians are the best people to tell our stories.

(And, of course, the flipside of this idea, which is basically Team No Award shouting about great Aussie media while we sit in the sun and drink gin even though it’s freezing cold out here.)

And this is why I recoiled from the idea of TotL as a work of Australian media, when we have American and British actors playing Australians, and the creator/showrunner is a New Zealander.

(I don’t usually draw too much distinction between Australians and New Zealanders, mind, except to acknowledge that Australia is the more powerful member of the partnership and Kiwis low-key hate us a bit. I think that, in the interests of fairness, I should admit here that I’m not a big fan of Jane Campion and irrationally don’t want to cut her any slack.)

Anyway, I have a difficult time regarding Top of the Lake as authentically Australian media. It occupies a space close to Mick Jagger’s Ned Kelly, Meryl Streep’s terrible Lindy Chamberlain impression, and the “Aussies” in Pacific Rim. The promotional material for Thor: Ragnorak has a stronger sense of Australian identity, and also doesn’t go using titles like “China Girl” to refer to Thai sex workers.