In a smaller pond

Jane Campion marks the return to her native New Zealand with a gripping television drama, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 10:21pm

JANE CAMPION IS SO associated with New Zealand, it's difficult to believe that she has not worked there for 20 years. The director-writer's last film in her homeland was 1993's The Piano, an unforgettable story of a mute woman (played by Holly Hunter) who falls for Harvey Keitel's brusque plantation worker in the 1850s. Campion won the Palme D'Or at Cannes for the film, and bagged an Oscar for best screenplay for it, too.

Since then, she's made some well-received period dramas (such as an adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady and the John Keats biopic Bright Star), and contemporary tales about women exploring their sexuality ( In the Cut, Holy Smoke). But none of these took her back to the country where she was born and grew up. Now she has returned to New Zealand for the six-hour television drama Top of the Lake, an electric blend of David Lynch's Twin Peaks and the detective drama The Killing. She finally gets to work with Hunter again for the first time since The Piano.

"It was a bit like a big slumber party," says Hunter, 55, who won the best actress prize at Cannes, and an Academy Award, for The Piano. Hunter plays GJ, the guru-like leader of a local women's camp stationed on the fringes of Lake Top, a small town seething with secrets and reverberating from the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old, Tui Mitcham (played by Jacqueline Joe).

Hunter's gnomic character sports long silvery locks, and seems to be physically modelling her look on 59-year-old Campion.

"Jane knew GJ. She understood the character," admits Hunter, who adds that she didn't initially think she was the right choice to play a guru: "I've had no exposure to gurus in my life. My idea of a guru is Ben Kingsley. I said: 'Why don't you get him? I don't get it!' And Jane said, 'No, you're the one. I want you.'"

Ask Campion what was special about Hunter, and she shrugs. "Holly's an explorer and a truth teller," she says.

As if to further this sense of circularity, The Piano and the TV series have a similar beginning. The Piano began with Hunter emerging from the waves onto a New Zealand beach, while Top of the Lake starts with Tui entering the still waters of Moke Lake, near Queenstown, on South Island.

It was one of the first images Campion dreamt up. "I imagined a girl walking to a really frosty lake in a school uniform, and thinking: 'What the hell is she doing?' And to find out that she's five months pregnant and 12 years old - that felt like the beginning of a real scandal."

Campion shared directing duties on this British/US/Australian co-production with Australian commercials director Garth Davis. (They directed three episodes each).

She co-wrote the series with Gerard Lee, with whom she collaborated on the script for her first feature, 1989's Sweetie, and co-directed her 1983 short Passionless Moments .

It also took her back to her 1990 film An Angel at My Table, the epic autobiography of poet Janet Frame. Like Top of the Lake, it was made for television, but found its way into cinemas around the world. The premiere of Top of the Lake was on the big screen, too - at the Sundance Film Festival in the US, where all six episodes were screened.

Campion, who was inspired to work in television by the scope of the HBO series Deadwood, believes the boundaries between the two have blurred. "It's a film and it's a novel, it's not a series. It's not episodic, it's like chapters - you can see the whole thing in one go," she says.

Campion is the latest in a long line of prestige-seeking directors to invest considerable time and energy in small-screen entertainment. Think of Michael Mann (with his horse racing drama Luck), David Fincher (his Netflix-only remake of the political show House of Cards), and Todd Haynes, whose Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Mildred Pierce also premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

In Hollywood, given the costs of producing a film, directors are often under pressure to deliver material that appeals to a broad demographic. But the small screen gives a bit more latitude.

"More and more, television is very, very provocative, and risky - people are letting their imaginations run wild on TV," says Hunter, who previously starred in and co-produced the TV show Saving Grace.

"On cable, there's very little restriction, so you can express yourself. It's a big, big shift."

Campion had a good reason for joining the TV revolution, she says: "My audience doesn't go to the movies any more. They don't like the big movies; maybe they'll go and see Skyfall or The Bourne Identity, but they're looking for more interesting material, and they're starting to see it on TV. Or they get the DVDs and watch it at home. They've also got kids, so it's hard for them to get out. [Television] makes it really easy for them."

There is some truth to this. Bright Star, Campion's last film, made just US$14 million around the world. Her work has never appealed to the 18 to 25 demographic, and now her fan base is ageing with her.

"It's quite obvious that cinema is limping along," Campion says, adding that television provides a solution. "You don't have to try and get an audience [in theatres]; you just go on TV."

Screening in two parts ( 175 and 177 minutes) at the Summer International Film Festival in Hong Kong, Top of The Lake allows Campion to paint on her biggest canvas since An Angel at My Table. It also lets her ruminate on what she calls "invisible women": marginalised females who are trying to survive in a violent, patriarchal society.

This theme is particularly prominent in the film's "post-menopausal" camp, where a group of women have made their homes in giant shipping containers. "You're dealing with the sort of women that no woman wants to be, but every woman's going to be at some time," Campion says.

With the camp providing some bizarre comic relief from the show's darker central story, the comparisons to Lynch's two-season drama, Twin Peaks, are inevitable. But Campion is swift to point out that the shows are different - notably in the way hers finishes after the first six episodes.

"You will know a lot," she promises. "You will know a great deal. It's more conclusive than Twin Peaks."


Top of the Lake (Part 1), August 24, 7.30pm, Hong Kong Science Museum; Top of the Lake (Part 2), August 25, 7.30pm, HK Science Museum. Part of the Summer International Film Festival 2013