You’re a long way from help,” someone warns Elisabeth Moss’s Robin in Top Of The Lake, as she investigates a rural New Zealand community. She almost shrugs and mutters simply: “I am the help.”
Top Of The Lake Today, BBC2, 9:10pm
Run Mon-Thu, Channel 4, 10pm
And so she is, the outsider who comes to fight for the powerless. In fact, she’s a heroine and even now we don’t see too many of them on our screens; there are, increasingly and thankfully, complicated female characters with strong personalities, like Carrie in Homeland, Birgitte in Borgen or even Moss’s own Peggy in Mad Men. But there are few portrayals of out-and-out heroic women, taking on a classic archetype more often played by men.
Top of the Lake was written and directed by Jane Campion and her switch to TV is another example of the medium becoming the obvious home for grown-up drama. Yet there’s a simplicity about this story which nods to the movie Western, where black hats and white hats were easily defined.
Robin is visiting her mother in the picturesque area “from Sydney” – presumably Sydney, USA, given her accent – and is drafted in to help with the case of a young girl in trouble. But the community’s (male) cops really just want her to go away, with all her political-correctness-gone-mad nonsense like taking child abuse seriously and not boozing on duty with suspects. Meanwhile, a sort of commune of women camping by the lake to recover from various traumas has aroused local wrath.
Yet this drama isn’t all about the women, thanks to a terrific performance by Peter Mullan as the powerful patriarch who controls his family with the same forceful love as he controls his pack of dogs.
As Mullan’s last big TV role was as the gangster patriarch in The Fear, it might seem like typecasting – except that was a man crumbling into dementia and getting desperate, while this one is, at least initially, an arrogant king of his little world. While Moss spends most of episode one as a mysterious, shut-off character, she comes into her own more as this slow-burn series continues.
The character played by National Treasure Olivia Colman (as she is now surely known) in Run does not seem very much like a heroine. Carol is constantly drinking from cans of lager, nicks stuff from work and snarls at everyone. Then again, I would snarl too if I had to live with Carol’s teenage sons, two of the most loathsome little thugs possible. And that’s even before they commit a crime which only a panicked Carol realises the significance of.
While Top of the Lake is all open spaces, Run is claustrophobic and grey. The characters’ world is so defined by their estate, that the sons believe no-one will care about their act since the victim is not from around there. Colman is completely believable but this is such a grim set of people that it’s lucky that the focus shifts to others in each nightly episode: Katie Leung – aka Harry Potter’s first girlfriend Cho Chang – is touchingly vulnerable as an illegal Chinese immigrant and Jaime Winstone plays a stripper whose boyfriend is murdered. And yes, they’re all connected.
This gritty, grim drama will win awards but, perhaps, be too hard-going for many.