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Paul Casserly: Accent Alert: Top of the Lake

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David Wenham and Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake. Photo / Supplied
David Wenham and Elizabeth Moss in Top of the Lake. Photo / Supplied

After viewing the first episode I would have to say that I'm in. It's dark, beautiful, a little spooky and a lot kooky. Things that made me chuckle included Holly Hunter channeling a new-age troll doll; Elizabeth Moss (Madmen) with a strangely fluid antipodean accent (not a patch on Anthony Hopkins as Burt Monroe); a cast covered in freshly-inked tattoos; and Robyn Malcolm as a walking, talking, American mid-life crisis. Oh and she's covered in chimp bites. She used to sleep with the chimp, before it turned feral and then she came to Queenstown to join a community of 'recovering' women who live in shipping containers. It's part Mad Max part The Killing.

Essentially it's a whodunit but the crime may not be murder, all we know so far is that the 12 year daughter of a criminal looking guy is pregnant and she's missing.

Emily Nussbaum of the The New Yorker, who's seen the entire series, raves about it, "funny, sexy, disorienting and emotional" but reckons that it's Campion rather than a troll doll that Hunter has been fashioned to look like.

Elsewhere in her review she gushes, "Top of the Lake needn't be a template for TV production, but it's an eye-opener, in both senses: a model for the sort of series in which words and images carry equal weight." She also compares it to Twin Peaks.

For what it's worth, I thought that Malcolm's accent was better than Moss's but then again I'm thinking that the show wasn't really made for us. A slightly off the mark Australian accent is not noticed in America and the American accent is so ubiquitous that New Zealand actors are usually pretty good at it.

Actually Anthony Starr has been really, really good at it in Banshee, so much so that I have only noticed that I haven't noticed. You could say that Banshee has a firmer handle on tone than the Top of The Lake, which has so far veered from creepy to silly. Still, the comic-book simplicity of Banshee is probably easier to pull off than the complexity of a Twin Peaks, and TOTL is a moody bloody thing to be sure, even if the quirky characters have yet to threaten the creations of David Lynch.

Back to accents: I know that actors play different characters from different places and all that, but it's always better when it comes naturally.

If it must be done it makes things easier if you don't know the actor, as many of us didn't while watching The Wire for instance. "OMG McNulty is English? Stringer Bell too?" I've banged on before about how we forgive the lame British voice employed by the 'Imp' in Game of Thrones. More recently watching Luck, I noted that Michael Gambon's drawl was so thick that he seemed to be chewing his way through the script, in the way that Englishman do when they're playing American's from the south. It may be momentary, but an accent that strikes a bum note takes you out of the moment, if just for a moment. Because I'm so used to Elizabeth Moss being Peggy from Madmen I do find myself following her every word as Aussie cop Robin Griffen with a sense of trepidation.

A strange accent related moment: Recently while I was watching a DVD of the superb Danish political thriller Borgen, the Prime Minister spoke English - a perfectly annunciated posh delivery that was at complete odds with her usual lazy Danish burble. (The show is 90% Danish, but the actors routinely bust out into English and French just to remind us how linguistically inept we are down here.) It wasn't bad, it was just weird, as if a different person had entered her body. It's not often that in the space of one show we got to see an actor doing two accents, her own and another less convincing one. (More on Borgen soon, can't recommend it highly enough.)

Aside from the occasional vocal hurdle and an over eager tattoo department, there is much to savor in TOTL, as you'd expect from anything with the name Campion attached. Firstly, the scary dad, Peter Mullan, steals every scene like a career criminal on a crime spree. (And nails his Scottish accent, possibly because he was born there) The great David Wenham is also present and is at his gruff best. Another good sign is that it feels slightly uncomfortable, like a new pair of shoes. The best shows always feel a bit odd at first. Like the landscape of the southern lakes, it feels both beautiful and creepy, and given the antics of the women of the 'cult' it clearly has a sense of humour. Actually these scenes reminded me of the women's bookshop skits on Portlandia. As for violence, the first episode included the drowning of a real estate agent and the shooting of his dog. Strangely I felt worse about the latter. There are no buckets of blood. If you're worried about jumping in at episode 2, don't, you'll be fine. The set-up so far has been minimal.

I'm still hanging in there for our truly homegrown whodunit, The Blue Rose, which started out looking more promising than it has turned out to be. If I make it to the end it will mostly be because Antonia Prebble appears to be holding the whole shebang together with the sheer force of her appeal. Her performance reminds me of Matt Prior holding on to save the test for England. Surely Hollywood must be busting down the door.

Top Of The Lake (UKTV, Monday 8.30pm)
The Blue Rose (TV3, Monday, 9.30pm)

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