“Top of the Lake” is the first miniseries from filmmaker Jane Campion of New Zealand (“The Piano,” “Bright Star”). I have seen only the first three of its seven parts, which begin Monday with two episodes on Sundance Channel, and though I suppose there is some chance it all will go off the rails, early signs suggest it will bend toward something even more mysterious, beautiful, unsettling and satisfying than the mysterious, beautiful, unsettling, satisfying thing it is from the start.
It will at least give us four more starring hours of Elisabeth Moss, whom it is a pleasure to see outside of “Mad Men,” where she never seems to have enough to do, and to see her in 21st century clothes, besides. She plays Robin Griffin, a police detective who, visiting her perhaps terminally ill mother in a New Zealand mountain town, becomes involved in a local case: Tui Mitcham, a 12-year-old girl found standing chest-deep in an icy lake, turns out to be almost five months pregnant. Then (mild spoiler) she goes missing.
Meanwhile, a group of variously distressed women, “in a lot of pain” and not exactly under the leadership of an unusual person called only GJ, has set up camp in some modified cargo containers on an even more remote tract of land. This wakes the interest and enmity of Tui’s father, Matt (Peter Mullan), who regards it as his by rights.
“Some people say she’s enlightened, but that’s kind of old-fashioned, really,” one of her not-quite followers says of the flinty GJ, who is played by Holly Hunter, who won an Oscar for “The Piano” two decades back. GJ calls herself the product of “a calamity”: “It’s as if I was hit by lightning,” she tells Tui, who finds her way to the camp on her way to disappearing. “Every cell in my body changed.”
“How come you’re alive?” the girl asks.
“I don’t think I am,” GJ responds. “I’m a zombie.”
Robin also is in a kind of suspended state, an outsider and an insider, back on old, tainted ground, not quite happy to be there but helpless to leave it. The people around her seem both unusually familiar with and ignorant of one another. (Perhaps that’s how it is in small towns, or possibly that’s just the human condition.)
Although Campion is working with a co-director, Garth Davis, and a co-writer, Gerard Lee (who collaborated with her on her first feature, “Sweetie”), “Top of the Lake” is very much of a piece with her previous work, with its collision of incomplete, strong women and troubling, unruly men, its indomitable landscapes, its concern with states of despair and of ecstasy and what one might call nongratuitous sex.
Campion throws Robin up against three men: Matt, rough but not unsophisticated, concerned only with his own family and ideas of justice (he makes a living outside conventional law); Matt’s son Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), living in the woods and spiritually improved by eight years in a Thai prison; and Det. Senior Sgt. Al Parker (David Wenham), who is, to start, less than comfortable with Robin and possibly too comfortable with Matt.
But neither these nor any of the other characters are fixed; Campion doesn’t underestimate them but lets them be as slippery as people are: full of surprises, of facets. (And not the too-familiar arbitrary quirks that are the poor writer’s substitute for depth.)
There are superficial resemblances to AMC’s “The Killing” (which some might take as a warning but shouldn’t): a haunted female detective whose work life rules her personal life, who is keeping a fiancé at arm’s length, who knocks elbows with officialdom and whose present case echoes her own past; an imperiled young girl; a novelistic pace.
The director, whose films represent a range of stylistic approaches, works here in a visually rich but basically matter-of-fact mode, without the ostentation that has occasionally marked her work but with no loss of atmosphere or mood. Indeed, the fairy-tale elements the story flirts with — a lost girl, a cursed lake, strange people in the forest — are the more powerful for Campion steering free of eerie movie convention. The landscape, which is huge and powerful and makes mites of men, does much of the work for her.
As, for that matter, do the small, human-sized details that decorate her pictures and dialogue and her actors’ focused, unshowy performances. By rooting “Top of the Lake” in the real, Campion gives her more fanciful inspirations legs, and the mystery — which is, needless to say, not merely or even mostly the mystery of a missing girl — room to breathe. I have no idea where any of it’s headed. But I am going along.