[This is a review of The Casual Vacancy. The review is SPOILER FREE for episode 3.]
J.K. Rowling's novel is quite the departure from the literary foray that made her famous. This time, rather than create a world filled with magic wands, sorting hats, and villains whose name must never be spoken, the author has tried her hand at a much smaller (but in some sense, no less extraordinary) slice of life story in the three-part miniseries The Casual Vacancy.
It is the story of Pagford, an English village that is not quite the idyllic little hamlet its otherwise quaint exterior would have you believe. Instead, underneath the pleasant veneer Pagford is granted by its cobblestone streets and old-world storefronts, it is a place churning amidst the turmoil of bitter class disparity. It is a place that is inhabited by disillusioned teens at odds with their sometimes-abusive, sometimes-drug addled (but mostly just disaffected or ineffectual) parents. And after the sudden death of one man who was determined to stand up and do the right thing – resulting in the titular casual vacancy in the parish council – Pagford is now a place where the ambitions of those seeking to take his place bring out the worst in everyone.
It is not a spoiler to say that the death in the beginning is that of the would-be protagonist Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear). After all, his untimely demise acts as the catalyst for the entire story. Barry, a devoted husband and father, as well as lawyer and humanitarian, was the main voice of reason in keeping a community center known as Sweetlove House – a sprawling mansion donated to the people of Pagford by its former owner – from becoming an upscale resort for the wealthy. But Barry was also the lone voice of compassion in the lives of three teenagers: his nephews Andrew (Joe Hurst) and Paul (Sonny Ashbourne Serkis), two seemingly meek teenagers, trapped in an abusive household run by their father Simon (Richard Glover), and Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), the daughter of a heroin addict who is barely keeping her family together.
Barry's crusade to limit the delineation of the rich from the poor in Pagford irks the sycophantic Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) and his wife Shirley (Julia McKenzie), the wealthy owners of an upscale grocery store and parents of Barry's feckless legal partner Miles (Rufus Jones). The Mollisons are eager to appease Aubrey and Julia Sweetlove (the heirs to the Sweetlove fortune) by using their seat on the parish council to make the resort a reality. And so, Barry's death is seen not only as an untimely tragedy, striking down a man who is seemingly in the prime of his life, but also as the last chance for the disadvantaged folks who use Sweetlove House as a methadone clinic and for various other social services. As Howard puts it, the regulars of Sweetlove House will eventually ruin Pagford's picturesque appeal, and for the sake of the village those regulars better off on the outskirts of town, where their housing projects have already been remanded.
It's a lot to take in, and to the miniseries' credit, the setting and its circumstances are established almost as quickly as Barry's exit is made. What's left, then, is a sprawling ensemble of disparate characters that range from a school principal suffering from trichotillomania, to his stepson Stuart (Brian Vernel), a mean spirited teenager dubbed "Fats," whose obsession with securing a sexual fling leads him to Krystal's front door. And there's more, like the bickering Parminder (Lolita Chakrabati) and Vikram (Silas Carson) Parminder, wealthy doctors who see medical professions through very different lenses. Or then there is Miles' wife Samantha (Keeley Hawes), a borderline alcoholic who must go to great lengths to seduce her own husband, while waging a losing battle for control of their two children with her mother-in-law, Shirley.
Adapted by Sarah Phelps, 'The Casual Vacancy' plays out as part morality tale and part decent into smirking voyeurism, with the ensemble being used in various ways to illustrate both. While the aforementioned disparity in class and the ethical concerns arising from such inequality take center stage early on, the first two hours of the miniseries struggle to make it anything more than mere commentary. The slow going is then compounded not only by the many, many threads the story never quite pulls into a cohesive whole, but also by the way the characters never become anything more than mere types – the sugar-craving weakling, the lonely kid with acne, the abusive father, the alcoholic, the drug addict, etc. With the exception of Krystal, none of the characters are particularly complex, they lack dimensions, and most of the time their conflicts are predictable and generated entirely by external forces.
Then there are Howard and Shirley. The performances by Gambon and McKenzie are spot on, but instead of genuine depth, the Mollisons become so exaggerated, there is little room in the story (or on the screen) for them to be anything other than villainous archetypes – the representation of the conservative extreme whose money-grubbing ways threaten to negatively impact the community. They do despicable things, and their failed attempt to ingratiate themselves with the Aubrey and Julia is humorous, to a certain extent – at one point they're shuffled out of the Sweetlove's posh home and told to email next time, rather than stop by – but in the end (and through a nightmare brought on by indigestion) we are only offered the slightest glimpse of who these people really are.
There's something to be said about the severity with which the story depicts life in this not-so-charming little village. When The Casual Vacancy works, it does so by not pulling any punches with threads like Krystal's, as she navigates some treacherous terrain, confronting not only her drug-addled mother, but also her mother's fearsome drug dealer, Obbo (Sam Redford). There's real intrigue and some moments of palpable sorrow there, but too often the miniseries focuses on the tedious minutiae of the local election, or the pettiness of men like Simon and Howard without explaining why they are they way they are. This makes the lesser threads feel too far removed from ones that work, preventing the miniseries from coalescing into the meaningful story it aims to become.
The Casual Vacancy will air its third and final episode Thursday, April 30 @8pm on HBO.
Photos: Steffan Hill/HBO