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'Top of the Lake': Killer Drama

In Jane Campion's whodunit sequel, Nicole Kidman is a bad mom in an evil place

Nicole Kidman and Alice Englert in 'Top of the Lake: China Girl'


Nicole Kidman plays Alice Englert's adoptive mother in "Top of the Lake: China Girl."

Where to Watch: Sundance TV

Premiere: Sept. 10, 9 p.m. ET

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Elisabeth Moss, Gwendoline Christie

In Top of the Lake: China Girl, the story begins with the kind of teasingly macabre imagery that kicks off most premium TV murder mysteries these days: A suitcase stuffed with an Asian woman’s body floats to the ocean’s surface near a beach, pulling the police (and us) into a whirlpool of whos and whys. Yet this three-night sequel to 2013’s offbeat, Emmy-nominated miniseries — again cowritten and codirected by Oscar-winning screenwriter Jane Campion (The Piano), 63 — veers from routine pretty quickly. And that’s not just because Nicole Kidman, 50, joins the fray with a typically fearless performance.

If you didn’t catch the original, no worries. Round 2 not only stands on its own, it offers the proverbial kitchen sink along with that serious baggage. The eerie starkness of Swedish whodunits like The Killing, the social commentary of ABC’s rave-reviewed yet recently canceled anthology American Crime, the weird wit of Twin Peaks — for all that, and the irresistible melodrama of the good ol' “woman’s picture,” come to this Lake.

Five years after she brought down a pedophile ring in her native New Zealand, stolid police detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) remains haunted not only by that case but also by the child that she gave up for adoption at birth as a teen. Her remedy: Throw herself into her new gig in Sydney, Australia, investigate that aforementioned murder and unearth a surreal-but-true labyrinth of prostitution, black-market babies and websites where men swap Yelp-like reviews of their poor, undocumented “girlfriends.”

Elisabeth Moss in 'Top of the Lake: China Girl'

Sally Bongers/ SundanceTV

Elisabeth Moss plays police detective Robin Griffin in "Top of the Lake: China Girl." She's on a mission to find her long-lost daughter and discovers she can be brought to her knees by her past.

In that taxing (and inherently salacious) milieu, Robin can’t help but finally track down her long-lost daughter — now a supremely pained, if pampered, 17-year-old named Mary (Alice Englert). How pained? In one of the six-hour tale’s many brazen stretches of credibility, she happens to be in love with Alexander (David Dencik), a much-older Svengali who’s secretly connected to the killing (and who has all the charm of Gollum from The Hobbit). Who needs The Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia when we’ve already got this small, weird world?

Gallows humor abounds. To offset Robin’s dour personal storyline (and perhaps Moss’ curious penchant for awkward stares and wan smiles), the writers have cunningly given her an endless supply of vibrant foils. Gangly Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones is lovable here as a novice cop whose messy love life makes (celibate) partner Robin’s nose wrinkle. As Mary’s well-off adoptive mother, Julia, Kidman doesn’t mind portraying a woman who seems to be more concerned about her self-image than her daughter’s happiness. (Someone start prepping an Ordinary People remake!) And as Mary herself, Australian wonder Englert resonates with the sort of raw, precocious angst that inspired many a John Hughes flick. Really, the actress is so true in the role, she helps elucidate the adults around her. 

There are chases and shootings and a kidnapping. Flirtations and affairs and delusional romances. Twists and shocks and laughs (Robin says she hasn’t just been burned by guys, “I’ve been deep-fried”). Lake offers waves of enthrallment over its entire run (cresting with a major confrontation in hour three), but the mystery's unusual resolution is key. The lingering message seems to be that the need to love and be loved need not control your life, let alone destroy it.