Jane Campion talks about how Nicole joined the cast of the second season of Top of the Lake.
Top of the Lake creator Jane Campion on the new inspiration behind her hit TV series
Fans of the critically acclaimed crime drama Top of the Lake will be eagerly awaiting its return at the end of this month – but writer Jane Campion admits that she never intended to make another series.
“The number one reason Gerard [Lee, co-creator of the show] and I wrote a second season was because we were really encouraged by people’s responses,” she says. “In the first season, Gerard and I did exactly what we wanted and the fact that people embraced that and really responded to it was deeply encouraging. Of course, the challenge then was to find something that would stimulate us in the same way.”
Campion surprised some critics when she turned her sights to television in 2013 with Top of the Lake, 20 years after receiving the Palme d’Or for the acclaimed film The Piano. The first series, which starred Elisabeth Moss as detective Robin Griffin on the trail of a 12-year-old pregnant girl who has disappeared, thrilled audiences and reviewers alike.
The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston described it as “hauntingly beautiful, genuinely original” and “fabulous” and the Telegraph said it was “without doubt the most original TV drama of the year so far, and possibly the best”.
The new series, Top of the Lake: China Girl, ramps up the star factor – Moss as Griffin returns to Sydney to reconnect with a daughter, Mary, whom she gave up for adoption and who was raised by the controlling Julia, played by Nicole Kidman. Then a suitcase containing the body of a young Asian girl washes up on Bondi beach. Griffin also gets an unwanted new partner, played by Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie. And there is an extra dash of Campion – her daughter, Alice Englert, a rising star in her own right, plays the rebellious and precocious teenager Mary.
“Nicole just really wanted to be in the show – she asked if there was a part for her,” says Campion. “And we realised she would really kill as Julia – in fact, once I started imagining her as Julia then it became really fun for me to write and we expanded it, which was a good call because it really brought the themes together.”
Christie also landed her part by contacting Campion. “She wrote to me and said she’d love to do something together. It was fascinating because of the sweetness of her letter – she’s very delicate and articulate – and then her physicality, for me, it very viscerally challenges those boundaries of what a woman wants and who she can be. And on a really ordinary level, as a partner for Robin Griffin, her outsize emotions and her whole physical height – because Lizzie’s quite short – like they’re going to have to negotiate a very visceral gap.”
This time Campion and Lee have moved the action from the small lakeside community in New Zealand’s South Island, which was the focus of the first series, to the bustling streets and bright lights of Sydney for a story focusing on migrant sex workers, online misogyny and the nature of motherhood.
“I really liked the idea of setting it in Sydney and making it very much about women and their bodies and the sex industry, in particular the experiences of migrants within the industry,” says Campion. “Just what the reality of the job might be like – not the way it’s usually presented with sex in bikinis or whatever but just the ordinariness of it, how you do it and earn money from it and keep earning money from it.”
Sex work has been decriminalised in Sydney but Campion admits the choice of plotline was still controversial. “I met with the Scarlet Alliance [Australia’s national sex workers association] and they said, ‘Why the hell do you have to have a story about dead prostitutes – it’s such a cliche and pathetic’, and I was like, ‘Oh OK, well it is a crime story’, and they said, ‘Yeah, I know but’ and explained why they hated it. So in the end we included their viewpoint in the story to get that voice across.”
Englert acknowledges that portraying sex workers on screen is a “complicated issue”. “People should be able to do what they want with their bodies and their minds,” she says.
Campion agrees: “There is a lot that totally pisses me off about it but there are also people working in the profession and enjoying it. I was blown away by the honesty of the women we met and their willingness to share their time and view of the world and men with us. The women who talked to us were probably the best thing about the whole project.”
Did she worry about switching the action from New Zealand to Australia? “Well, people did really love the atmosphere of the first series, and there was the sense that that edge of wilderness stuff was very much part of the appeal,” she admits. “But doing something in the same setting didn’t really appeal to me. I needed a new challenge.”
The action picks up four years after the harrowing events of series one with an increasingly isolated Griffin back at work, plagued by nightmares and apparently dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“I really like that the series starts out with her completely shut off and doing worse than we might expect,” says Moss. “The more typical thing to do would have been to come back and have her be coping OK and then take a dive and fall to her knees before coming back up but I think starting out low and then going further down is much more unique.”
The first series of Top of the Lake was unflinching in its examination of misogyny and abuse, and the second continues those themes, examining the ramifications of Griffin’s return to the workplace.
“I was really interested in the way in which she’s accused of being emotionally unstable, which I don’t think would happen if she was a man,” says Moss. “It’s not just that she’s a woman in a man’s world or one of the only women in the office, it goes deeper than that to this other layer of misogyny and even ‘gaslighting’, which really makes her doubt who she is and what she thinks.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing for fans of the series are the moments when humour and light shine through the darkness. There are some very funny scenes of social comedy and also some surprisingly sweet moments amid the pain. “I think the whole season is full of romance,” says Englert. “The tension and sweetness of romance and people finding each other and connecting, not necessarily in a sexual way.”
Top of the Lake: China Girl starts on BBC2 at the end of this month and will also be available on iPlayer; it starts in Australia on BBC First in August. Series one is on BBC2 on Fridays at 11.05pm