There’s a long scene in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl that requires Elisabeth Moss’s character to listen to a male actor’s soliloquy and the interjections of another actor and ask just two questions herself. Helped by the quality of the writing, the actor who gives the speech is terrific—his is a vile comic turn. But he’s overmatched by the brilliance of Moss’s silence and stasis, which is so compressed with thought and feeling it’s a wonder that her cheeks don’t burst.
The setting is a Sydney police interrogation room. Moss’s Detective Sergeant Robin Griffin has been called in by a colleague to listen to a bum confess to the murder of a young Asian prostitute who’s decomposing body fetched up in a suitcase on Bondi Beach.
The suspect is mocking the cops. He rattles on speciously about how he was ordered out of a brothel for idly fingering the girl—his conversational tone makes it clear he relishes talking crudely in front of a woman. Afterwards, he says, he hooked up with the prostitute, had sex with her in his car, and strangled her. He unwittingly reveals he’s lying when he says he wrapped the corpse in a “beautiful blanket” and floated it out to sea.
What makes the scene remarkable are Moss’s subtle reactions in the face of such foul blarney delivered to waste the police’s time while scoring the “confessor” a plate of police grub, which he shovels into his mouth while talking.
Robin enters the room poker-faced, having no doubt questioned many hoaxers in the past. Her expression barely changes but, as the confessor’s tall story builds, we sense imperceptibly, rather than see, that an infinitesimal degree of skepticism is supplanting any willingness she had to believe she was hearing the truth. Once the cat is out of the bag, her faces glazes over with restrained contempt and she leaves the room.
It’s all in a day’s work for Robin, whose dour, mistrustful demeanor—as we know it from the first Top of the Lake—was formed by the double trauma of being gang-raped as a teenager and having to relinquish the child she bore nine months later. In reuniting Robin with her daughter Mary (Alice Englert, Campion’s daughter), herself now a 17-year-old in need of rescuing from the 41-year-old sexual predator she loves, China Girl makes a stab at healing.
But not before Robin gives vent to her pent-up fury in a knock-down fight with the New Zealand cop, Detective Senior Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham), who date-raped her more recently; their tussle requires each to mimic the stranglehold feigned by the jerk in the interrogation room. It comes as a relief to see Robin thrashing Parker and bellowing in his face in a courthouse ante-room seared by flames and pelted with sprinkler water: the battle of the sexes having turned apocalyptic.
As I wrote here, Moss was “mesmerizingly sly and sarcastic”—her character Offred’s default mode—in The Handmaid’s Tale, which is only more harrowing than China Girl because female enslavement in it is institutionalized and universal for all except the elite. Robin has more freedom than Offred (real name June), but her suffering is no less intense. They are fellow stoics cruelly victimized by male control and sexual brutality.
I’m not convinced Moss is greater in The Handmaid’s Tale than she is in China Girl, though the comparative lack of fanfare that greeted the latter in the US may count against her winning an Emmy for it one year from now.
That’s less important than the need to recognize Moss’s resonance as the actress who, whether playing Peggy Olson in Mad Men, Robin, or Offred/June, captures the fears and anxieties of women subjected to patriarchal oppression in the past, present, and future, as well as their steely resolve to overcome it. There’s no more important actor working at the moment.