Top of the Lake: China Girl review – Elisabeth Moss is totally mesmerising, again

Season two sees Jane Campion wring cinematic beauty from a seedy Sydney cityscape, with Nicole Kidman joining Mosss Detective Robin Griffin

An Asian couple finish their noodles, then take a big wheelie suitcase to the top of a cliff at night. The size of the case, its obvious weight, and the cemetery (Waverley?) they pass through leave you in little doubt about what is inside. That is before a split opens up in it, from the fall, and human hair, long and black, billows out in the underwater currents, as if it is alive again.

I worried about the move from New Zealand to Sydney for Jane Campions Top of the Lake follow-up Top of the Lake: China Girl (BBC2). The vast, lonely beauty of the South Island scenery played such a major part in the first series. But Campion wrings a different kind of beauty, still cinematic though, from a seedy Sydney cityscape.

Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss, totally mesmerising again, and now briefly overlapping herself as the lead in the two most absorbing dramas currently on television), has returned to Sydney to throw herself into work and to forget about everything that went down by the Kiwi lake. And also, maybe, because she has a teenage daughter here, a child she gave up at birth but whose letter which came a few years ago, seeking contact she carries around with her. Perhaps now is the time for that contact.

There is a lot of reflection on what it means to be a mother, and specifically the mother-daughter relationship, in ToTL 2.0. Motherhood that has hitherto been denied but that can maybe now be caught up on; motherhood that will never be, the madness and pain of missing out; non-biological motherhood, surrogate motherhood. Real-life motherhood, too: who plays Robins daughter, Mary, when they do (of course) make contact? Campions real-life daughter, Alice Englert.

Nicole Kidman, the big-name movie star, as Holly Hunter was in the first series, is fabulous and so very real as Marys adoptive mother: academic, fiercely clever, infuriating, especially to her (adopted) daughter. Any kind of mother-daughter relationship, it seems, is not an easy one.

The big-name movie star Nicole Kidman is fierce and fabulous in Top of the Lake: China Girl. Photograph: See-Saw Films (TOTL2) Holdings Pty Ltd

It is also a little about female friendship, which is not straightforward either. It looks as if it might not happen for Robin and her cop partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie) to begin with. The fault lies almost entirely with Robin, but then she is suffering, remember? And things change (I binged, it is impossible not to, when it is all there now, on iPlayer, and it is so addictive).

They are together on the case of the suitcase, which eventually washes on to Bondi beach, with its gruesome contents. The investigation takes them to a dark side of Sydney, a place of illegal immigration, exploitation, human trafficking and prostitution.

As a mystery and a cop show, it is totalling compelling. Less bonkers than the first series, tighter, better planned. Last time, the womens camp by the lake was brilliant and hilarious, for example, but it could have been removed without doing any structural damage to the whole thing. The equivalent in this a community of horrid young male porn-surfers who are incapable of communicating with women who arent sex workers are more integral to whats going on.

Oh, yeah, the men. If they are not pathetic, they are misogynistic, racist pigs. Dicks, all of them, literally they follow their own penises around like dumb puppies. The one intriguing male character, with a bit more to him, is Marys boyfriend Puss (David Dencik). And he is really creepy, manipulative and violent. Do all the men have to be so ghastly? Maybe they do, if Puss is correct, and the destiny of man is to enslave women. And if women must and do take back power.

Awww, poor love, poor me, are you feeling a bit gender-bashed? Ill be all right. And I love it, because it is beautifully written, beautifully performed, beautiful to look at. And really funny. Dry, astute, humour, via masterly dialogue. But also surprisingly visual, silent-movie humour, almost slapstick. Like the comedy height difference between cop partners Robin and Miranda. And at the very beginning, when the couple are pushing that wheelie suitcase, containing the dead woman, off the cliff, it rolls down towards the edge, but then gets stuck, teetering on the brink, and needs a nudge before crashing into the ocean.

It is good news that Campion has discovered the small screen. It is not small; she makes it look big it is big, gives her space. Top of the Lake would never have fitted into a movie.

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