TV interview: Jane Campion brings quality crime mystery to our screens

Jane Campion's tale is so much more than a crime drama.
Jane Campion's tale is so much more than a crime drama.
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To describe Top Of The Lake as a crime drama doesn’t even begin to dip below its surface.

Created by Jane Campion, who won an Oscar for her screenplay for The Piano, the show plunges viewers into the middle of a complex crime mystery, with a strong undercurrent on the battle of the sexes.

Set in the vast open countryside of New Zealand, the beautiful vistas play home to a small community dominated by macho men.

But a group of outsiders – feminist women who are on a journey of self-discovery – have set up camp in the wilderness, and the clash of cultures promises explosive results.

In the centre is Robin Griffin (played by American actress Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame), a city detective visiting her sick mother.

When a 12-year-old schoolgirl is discovered to be five months pregnant and then goes missing, Robin volunteers to head the investigation.

Campion admits her first thought when Moss asked to audition was that an American wouldn’t suit the role.

But she’d been hunting high and low for her leading lady and agreed to see her.

“I think she’s a rare creature,” says the 59-year-old director. “She’s like the Mona Lisa – the more you go in, the more tantalised you get. There’s something hidden and mysterious that just engages you.

And the more I worked with Elisabeth, the more devoted I felt.”

Campion had been working on the idea for the story for more than five years, but admits the current trend for powerful female detective characters, in shows like The Killing, was in mind when she was making it.

“I had the outline in my head already. I’d spent about a week or so alone in New Zealand in this area on holiday, and the idea started to just come tumbling forward.

“I didn’t want to write for six hours alone,” she admits. So she turned to Gerard Lee, with whom she who co-wrote her debut feature film Sweetie in 1989.

Campion grew up in Wellington, her mother an actress and her father a theatre director. She studied art in Sydney and London, but then found further freedom in film-making.

Despite her liberal upbringing, Campion experienced the male chauvinist attitudes she portrays in Top Of The Lake.

“It’s not something I’m really angry about any more. It’s just something I know is around. It’s fun to portray, and healthy,” she says.

Top Of The Lake begins on BBC Two on Saturday, July 13

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