An Excellent Ensemble Shines In ‘The Casual Vacancy’

The series does an admirable job of adapting J.K. Rowling’s dense book into a miniseries, even with the sacrifice of several storylines.

A three-part miniseries based on J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter book, The Casual Vacancy centers on a vacant parish council seat and the political machinations at work behind the scenes. Set in the seemingly idyllic Pagford, the problems of the less well-to-do adjacent council estate, known as The Fields, and its residents bleed into the politics of the local election in ultimately tragic ways.

The shocking death of parish council member Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) sets the story into motion. An almost unbelievably saintly figure, Barry’s death creates a ripple effect that touches the lives of not only his family, friends, and fellow council members, but also residents of The Fields. His death is immediately met with a great deal of political maneuvering because of his deciding vote on a piece of valuable property in Pagford.

Howard (Michael Gambon) and Shirley Mollison (Julia McKenzie) are the elder members of the parish council, and intent on turning that specific Pagford property into a high-end spa, rather than maintaining it as a social services resource for the area. Barry argues passionately that removing this resource would force those seeking its services to find them much further away, disadvantaging them even more. Barry’s case receives support from Dr. Parminder Jawanda (Lolita Chakrabarti) and Tess Wall (Monica Dolan) in his attempts to keep the spa from taking over, but the Mollisons are a force to be reckoned with, particularly after Barry’s untimely death.

Though ostensibly about a local election, The Casual Vacancy is really a story about the ways in which those most in need are abandoned by those with the power to make their lives better. No character embodies this theme more than the teenaged Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie) who lives with her drug-addicted mother, Terri (Keeley Forsyth) while caring for her toddler-aged brother, Robbie. Krystal is a walking disaster, at least outwardly. She does poorly in school, when she bothers to show up, curses constantly, is promiscuous, and generally is set on putting people off. It’s only in her relationship with Robbie and the flashbacks to her relationship with Barry that it’s clear her circumstances are the real problem, not her.

The plot of The Casual Vacancy is complex, in that so many key relationships that intersect (both on purpose and by accident), making a summary of the miniseries (or book, for that matter) daunting. In fact, a great many details from the book were altered or removed altogether from this adaptation. Though understandable, it highlights the fact that the book would’ve been better served by a limited series run in order to fully present the many connections in the story, as well as to fully flesh out these characters, some of who only get a cursory characterization.

Despite the ways in which the adaptation falls short, the acting is undoubtedly wonderful. Gambon’s Howard is both entitled and smarmy, a wholly selfish character; yet Gambon imbues him with a buffoonery that is a consistent source of humor. Similarly, his daughter-in-law, Samantha (Keeley Hawes) adds a lighthearted touch in her many attempts to seduce her uninterested husband, Miles (Rufus Jones), and parent her ungrateful teenage daughters. Hawes also brings some vulnerability to the role as it relates to her interactions with her mother-in-law, Shirley. The Mollisons never thought Samantha was good enough for their son, and have always made that clear. As the story winds down, their issues surface, offering a showcase for these actors’ considerable talents.

The Casual Vacancy also introduces Lawrie in what is arguably the central role of the series, and she carries it ably. Lawrie’s Krystal is brash and wounded, she’s a teenager who’s lived with constant disappointment and responsibility beyond her years. Lawrie finds a way to bridge that bravado with vulnerability in ways that make her easy to root for, regardless of her outward persona.

The series does an admirable job of adapting Rowling’s dense book into a miniseries, although several storyline sacrifices were obviously made. With such an accomplished cast, The Casual Vacancy brings to life Pagford, The Fields, and those most affected by the politicking that imbues the story. The tragic ends of several characters, although often telegraphed throughout the course of the miniseries, still manage to be affecting; a testament to both the writing and the acting.

The Blu-ray release includes several bonus features, including several featurettes that highlight the characters, plot, locations, and the television adaptation.

RATING 6 / 10