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After seven books (and eight movies) dealing with the adolescent travails of wizards-in-training, it’s perfectly understandable that mega-popular writer J.K. Rowling decided to shift her sights to more practical, non-magical matters. Her 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy traded the fictional Hogwarts for the fictional Pagford, an idyllic village in the Cotswolds region of England that is upended by the shocking death of one of its most esteemed residents. It was marketed as Rowling’s first “adult” novel, dealing as it did with drug addiction, frank sexuality and deep, dark family secrets coming to light.
HBO and BBC’s jointly produced adaptation (a three-part miniseries airing over two nights) blunts some of the grimmer plot points: a suicide becomes an accidental death, and there’s no mention of one character’s purported molestation of a child. But there’s still plenty of deviant acting out, from casual pot smoking to illicit sexual encounters (one while wifey is in the next room, natch). Mostly, though, miniseries is concerned with exploring the social and political tensions buried under Pagford’s cheery façade. Sad to say it does so in ways that suggest Rowling wanted nothing more in life than to unearth her inner Paul Haggis.
Trouble is evident right off the bat as we meet the town’s eye-rollingly named saint Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear), a kind-hearted man who is, ahem, “fair” and “brotherly” to every person he meets. He collapses on the floor one morning after seeing a scary skeleton in his bathroom mirror. This specter turns out to be no less than Death itself, offering Barry a premonition of what’s to come. By the midpoint of the first episode, Barry is dead from a brain aneurysm, and he leaves behind a distraught wife (Emily Bevan) and a vacant seat on the town council. His demise couldn’t come at a more inopportune time, as the council is deadlocked on a vote over whether to turn a community center for the poor and disadvantaged into a luxury spa and hotel.
Now an impromptu election must be held, and this puts the Pagford populace’s class divides into stark relief. On the snootiest end of the spectrum sits Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) and his wife Shirley (Julie McKenzie), both of whom would like nothing more than to shuttle the town’s undesirables out of view by any means necessary. On the other end of the scale is the series’ second martyr — the rebellious, but essentially compassionate teenager Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), who looks after her toddler brother (Bryce Sanders) because their mother (Keeley Forsyth) is addicted to heroin.
In-between these social-strata extremes lie a number of unhappy spouses, ineffective and/or abusive parents, troubled teens, kindly social workers run ragged by the system and an anonymous Internet poster who reveals skeletons in the closet as the rickety plot requires. The miniseries feels like it’s straining to be one of those panoptic portraits in which Robert Altman specialized, with a sprawling cast criss-crossing paths and performing seemingly inconsequential actions (like the dumping of a stolen television into a river) that have a tragic ripple effect. Yet the overall air of sanctimoniousness is very much Haggis; imagine his Oscar-feted Crash transposed overseas with its we-are-all-connected piousness fully intact.
Despite the treacly smugness, which doesn’t become fully evident until the third episode, it’s easy to get caught up in The Casual Vacancy’s soapy drama and to admire a number of the performances. Kinnear is especially good in his big scene early on, delivering a heartfelt speech in front of the council about the importance of paying it forward to the impoverished. And newcomer Lawrie is terrific as the unruly Weedon, more than holding her own against, and often surpassing, stalwarts like Gambon, a great actor unfortunately reduced to playing a corpulent, one-note figure of fun. (The less said about his character’s malodorous visit to the commode, the better.)
It’s only once the series nears its end that one recognizes the odiousness of the entire enterprise—a frivolous and maudlin vision of human frailty that’s convinced of its unimpeachable nobility. Only one reaction (Rowling-authored, at that) is appropriate to this folderol: Avada Kedavra!
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