Magazine article Variety

Family Affair

Magazine article Variety

Family Affair

Article excerpt

Alice Englert calls her mother "Jane" on set.

"To be honest, I've always noticed that 'Jane' gets her attention a little bit better than 'Mum,'" she said, to laughter, at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in July.

It's not always noteworthy when an actor works with a parent. But when that parent is Palme d'Or winner Jane Campion - and the set in question is for "Top of the Lake: China Girl," a six-hour exploration of motherhood - it's especially relevant. Englert plays Mary, a rebellious 18-year-old coming to terms with both her adoptive mother, Julia (Nicole Kidman), and her biological mother, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), the protagonist of "Top of the Lake."

Where the show's first installment was an excavation of rape culture, the second is about the complex landscape of motherhood. Set five years after the events of the first series, "China Girl" finds Robin in Sydney. Ostensibly, she's hoping to restart her career as a detective. But she's also looking for the daughter (Englert) she gave up for adoption after her brutal sexual assault two decades ago.

Her first case back on the job has her investigating the murder of a pregnant dead woman whose body was found in a suitcase that washed up on the beach. And complicating matters, the powers that be have assigned her to work with the temperamental and pregnant Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), an impulsive and largely unsuccessful police officer with a kind of hero-worship of Robin, her diminutive superior.

With Englert in front of the camera and Campion behind it, maternal themes pervade the production. Nepotism can sometimes feel frustratingly inorganic, but with "China Girl," it's the opposite: Englert blooms in front of Campion's lens, leaning into the director's emphasis on presence and physicality.

"You may think it's an interesting layer," Campion says, laughing, when asked about how motherhood came into play behind the camera. Though the director insists that Englert's casting was strictly a work decision, in the next breath she points out how it filtered into the production. "Directing these difficult episodes with Alice, I really didn't trust myself to push her hard enough," she says. "It's actually physically uncomfortable for me to see my daughter in distress, even if she's acting. It's easier for me if I'm not the one saying, 'Do it again.'" (Campion, who co-created and executive produces "Top of the Lake," co-directed with series newcomer Ariel Kleiman.)

That behind-the-scenes tangle of intimacy extends beyond just Campion and Englert: Kidman, a family friend, has known Campion since the actress was 14 and watched Englert grow up. In 1996, the two teamed on indie film "The Portrait of a Lady." Working with Campion again "feels like coming home," Kidman says. And in some ways, it is home. Toward the end of the season, "Top of the Lake" utilizes some home footage that Campion took of Englert at a childhood birthday party. "I was in some of that," she says. "Not the stuff that ended up in [the show]," she adds. "But I was at the birthday party." ->

For Moss, who met Englert in 2013 on the set of the first "Top of the Lake," the almost palpable chemistry she has with her on-screen daughter hit her almost immediately. When Robin and Mary first meet - in a fraught, awkward, yet ultimately beautiful scene - they find common ground when they share a smoke. "Lizzie and I, we did have a cigarette together," Englert recalls.

Did her mom know she was smoking? "Oooh, yeah," Englert laughs. "It's hard to hide when you're really chaining it."

Like Robin, Mary is a character pushed to her limits over the course of the series. "I don't know if anyone who wasn't Jane's daughter - and raised with Jane - could have had the bravery to do it," says Moss with admiration.

"Jane said to me," Englert says, slipping again between "Jane" and "Mum," "that she knew what I was capable of."

THE TWO ITERATIONS of "Top of the Lake" emphasize the emotional impact of a mystery over simply solving it. …

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