Is the bucolic, picture-postcard image of English village life any more based in reality than the world of Hogwarts? That’s the question this adaptation of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s 2012 novel, The Casual Vacancy, raises…and then answers with a resolute “No.”
The three-part drama is set in Pagford, a fictional burg that stinks of old-world charm but whose residents tend to smell less fragrant. This may be literally true in the case of Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon), the overweight chairman of the village’s ruling parish council. Mollison, we discover early on, has a nasty rash hidden beneath his stomach. This sore acts as both an echo of the village’s own pustulated underbelly and a warning that we may not be in the land of symbolic subtlety.
Epidermal issues aside, the local bigwig’s main irritation is that a prized village building, Sweetlove House, is being used as a counseling center for drug addicts like mother of two Terri Weedon (Keeley Forsyth). The snobbish Mollison wants this piece of real estate turned into a spa—a plan that has been historically opposed by another council member, Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear). When Fairbrother unexpectedly drops dead, Mollison persuades his lawyer son Miles (Rufus Jones) to stand in the ensuing election, which finds him facing off against nervous, wig-wearing teacher Colin Wall (Simon McBurney) and Barry’s bully of a half brother Simon Price (Richard Glover). The electoral battle, which provides the show’s narrative spine, rapidly and nastily escalates after someone claiming to be the ghost of Barry Fairbrother starts to reveal damaging information about each candidate on the Internet.
The Casual Vacancy shares with the Harry Potter films an enclosed ecosystem and the Dumbledore-playing Gambon—and precious little else. Director Jonny Campbell (the U.K. zombie series In the Flesh) and screenwriter Sarah Phelps have wisely winnowed down the vast, Middlemarch-evoking cast of characters featured in Rowling’s book, but stay close to the spirit of the tome. Which is to say, The Casual Vacancy is very adult in its themes and very foulmouthed in its dialogue (“F— off, you crying t–t!” is just one of the many lines that would surely have resulted in immediate wand confiscation if uttered by a member of Gryffindor). Also, like the book, the miniseries can come across less as a believable depiction of a community than as a collection of grotesques, despite the best efforts of its top-notch cast to give their roles three dimensions.
The one major exception is Terri’s daughter, Krystal, a fully fleshed-out character played to perfection by newcomer Abigail Lawrie. Indeed, the true revelation here is not the tired cliché that small towns have dark secrets but rather the actress’ deft inhabiting of the flinty yet vulnerable teenager. Even if the show as a whole is a less-than-enchanting experience, Lawrie’s Krystal should still cast a spell on viewers. B