J.K. Rowling‘s The Casual Vacancy, adapted by Sarah Phelps into a TV miniseries, is the tonal inversion of the Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter, small tragedies were overshadowed by a final, triumphant outcome. There was a sense that all the struggle and sadness that had come before had been for something. In The Casual Vacancy, small triumphs are overshadowed by much darker tragedies, and in the end, it leaves a portrait of a broken system that might make even Dickens pause over its bleakness.
Stylistically, HBO’s three-hour miniseries (over three episodes, co-produced by the BBC) feels like any number of sleekly-produced PBS series that take place in an idyllic English hamlet (Grantchester immediately comes to mind) — just with more sex and swearing. Director Jonny Campbell‘s camera lingers on the lush foliage and rolling hills of the Cotswolds, in England’s West Country, and on the old stonework and gorgeous setting of the tiny, fictional town of Pagford (a very Potter-esque name).
But Pagford is filled with strife, both on personal and political levels. The sudden departure of a beloved townsperson leaves a vacancy on the town counsel, which also happens to be the tie-breaking vote regarding a divisive and class-based plan to turn a community center into an upscale hotel and spa. Candidates begin coming forward to run for the seat, though each also comes up against smear campaigns and personal demons, and The Casual Vacancy uses that as a catalyst to explore the lives and personalities of those who make up the town of Pagford.
Not having read Rowling’s novel, I can’t comment on how successfully the story has been adapted to screen, but the miniseries certainly feels novelistic to start. It throws together a huge amount of characters in the first hour, but with a pace that doesn’t allow most to leave an impression. It makes good sense for HBO to air the first two episodes together on the first night, or risk losing viewers who might otherwise not feel interested enough in the disjointed story to stick around; by the second hour plots begin to gel and intersect, and motivations become clearer.
That second hour is a high point, because by the third it becomes very apparent that there is simply too much story for three hours of television to handle. Phelps’ script makes the smart choice to focus on the most compelling character, though, a teenager named Krystal Weedon, who lives on council estate with her drug addled mother, and who becomes responsible for her younger brother’s well-being. As Krystal, Abigail Lawrie is the shining star of the miniseries, as she alternates between moods of aggression, apathy, and fragility. She’s strong but vulnerable, and Lawrie makes Krystal’s plight throughout the story deeply affecting.
Plight, though, is really the word for The Casual Vacancy, whose bleakness and skimmed-over plots make it a hard series to get emotionally invested in. Though deep issues are broached, they aren’t given the time to develop, and interesting characters are glanced over, leaving major plots feeling half-done. The miniseries is ultimately a collection of vignettes that appears to have an overarching story, but ends before there’s time to find out what it actually is.
Still, The Casual Vacancy is helped along both by sumptuous filmmaking, and the strength of its actors. Though given short scenes and slim material to work with, Rory Kinnear, Emily Bevan, Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie, Keeley Hawes and Lolita Chakrabarti, among so many others, manage to create rich performances that simply need more time to be great. Most characters, though, breeze in and out, seeming at first to hold the key to the series’ drama, but ultimately petering out into nothing.
The Casual Vacancy‘s major flaw is its tonal inconsistency. The material never seems to have a firm grasp of what kind of story it is telling, or even how it wants it to be told (or what viewers should be left with in the end). There are some major mistakes made with voiceovers and its frantically rushed ending, but in moments of narrative doubt, Campbell trains his camera on the minutia, taking the story out of the frame completely to focus on a struggling bee on a windowsill, or lint clinging to a screen. The haunting, ambient soundtrack by British band Solomon Grey then carries us through to the next scene, but where we’re heading, and why, remains unclear.
Rating: ★★ Fair made ★★★ Good thanks to Lawrie.
The Casual Vacancy premieres Wednesday, April 29th on HBO, with the first two episodes starting at 8 p.m., and concluding on Thursday, April 30th at 8 p.m.