Things In A Small Town Are, Once Again, Not What They Seem In "A Casual Vacancy" Review

Filmmakers and audiences alike have long been fascinated with peeling back the beautiful, sundrenched layers of idyllic communities to reveal ugliness hidden underneath. David Lynch has made this obsession a centerpiece of his career; in the opening sequence of his 1986 classic Blue Velvet, he presents the audience with bright blue skies and pristine green fields, before panning the camera down to reveal an severed ear rotting away in the lushness of the grass--one of the most iconic images summarizing this concept. But why are we so unwilling to accept that a pretty suburban neighborhood or a tiny country village might actually be perfect? Must there always be some kind of skeleton in the closet, some horrible sacrifice that was made or secret that was kept in order to achieve this nearly utopian facade? Apparently, yes. Clearly, everyone else out there is almost as cynical as I am.

For many fans of J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series, her first post-Potter novel--and first-ever book for adults--was a shock to the system. The Casual Vacancy is yet another tale of a town that is grasping for perfection with very little thought for the consequences. The bitter and manipulative characters that populate the picturesque village of Pagford bear little resemblance to heroic Harry and his friends; they have adulterous sex, shoot up heroin, steal televisions, spill secrets and battle each other over everything in ways that range from passive-aggressive to...just flat-out aggressive. As someone who realized she had outgrown the Harry Potter series approximately halfway through the final book, and who is, as previously mentioned, very cynical, The Casual Vacancy was a disturbing delight. The characters were all deliciously flawed, and I quickly became obsessed with finding out what bad life choice they would make next. I was thrilled to hear that these terrible, wonderful people were going to be brought to life in a miniseries; however, I was less than thrilled with the result.

A story told in three one-hour installments, the adaptation of The Casual Vacancy opens each episode by following a character on his morning run throughout scenic, sunny Pagford--a choice reminiscent of the lengthy and explorative credits sequences for each episode of Lynch’s Twin Peaks, yet another meditation on the dark disturbing secrets a small town is surprisingly capable of hiding. In this case, Pagford is hiding a methadone clinic and food bank inside the old Sweetlove House, which was left to the village as a gift many years ago. Now, Sweetlove’s descendants want the house back so they can turn it into a high-end spa; the hope is that the unattractive, poor and addicted people of the nearby council estate will then have no reason to come to Pagford, and be replaced by visitors who are more wealthy and attractive. Spearheading this movement are village elders Howard and Shirley Mollison (Michael “Dumbledore” Gambon and Julia McKenzie), possibly two of the most awful, selfish and prejudiced people ever to appear in print or onscreen. A vote is approaching in which the parish council will have to vote on whether to return the house to the Sweetloves or to keep using it as a clinic. Local lawyer Barry Fairbrother, played by the always-compelling Rory Kinnear, gives an impassioned speech to his fellow council members about how it is their duty to look out for everyone in Pagford--not just the ones who look good on a spa brochure. He has doctor Parminder (Lolita Chakrabarti) and school psychologist Tess (Monica Dolan) on his side, and the vote looks to be a close one. Then, Barry Fairbrother drops dead.

Barry’s unexpected death by brain aneurysm sends the entire town into a tizzy. Now, there is a casual vacancy on the council, and whoever fills that open seat may decide the future of Sweetlove House. From there, Pagford devolves into a full-on war, one fought through well-placed election flyers, explosive dinner parties and disturbing messages left on an online message board that are purported to be from “the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.” The Mollisons enlist their spineless son Miles (Rufus Jones) to run for Barry’s seat, much to the chagrin of his wife Samantha (a fiery and funny Keeley Hawes). His opponents are Barry’s slightly criminal half-brother Simon (Richard Glover) and Tess’ husband Colin (Simon McBurney), a panic-attack prone school administrator. Amidst these upper-middle class squabbles, we are introduced to Krystal Weeden (rising star Abigail Lawrie), a trash-talking and cigarette-smoking teen from the estate who was forced to grow up far too fast because of her mother Terri’s heroin addiction. Terri is one of the many people on the estate who benefits from the methadone clinic being so close to home; if the Sweetlove House’s clinic closes, it will be so much harder for her to stay on the wagon. Krystal does things like skip class and have casual sex that would make the more respectable residents of Pagford cringe in horror, but she’s also one of the most responsible characters in the entire town when it comes to the way she cares for her little brother Robbie while her mother drifts half-dead around the house. Lawrie gives one of the most raw, heartbreaking debut performances since Katie Jarvis danced onto the screen in the electric Fish Tank; she is by far the best thing about this miniseries.

Why is that? Well, in Rowling’s book, the characters were all painted in varying shades of grey. There were some that were clearly more likable than others, but they were all pretty messed up in their own unique ways. The reader felt conflicted, unable to root entirely for Fairbrother's crew and entirely against the Mollisons. The miniseries, on the other hand, portrays everyone in much less subtle black and white; everyone in Pagford feels either cartoonishly bad or saintly good, with the exception of Krystal--one of the main reasons why she is the most compelling one of the lot. One wonders why, if a miniseries format was going to be used, they chose to make only three episodes, thus forcing the elimination of various plot strands and events from the book that delve deeper into the intriguing stories of ensemble characters like social worker Kay and her homesick-for-London daughter Gaia, as well as Parminder and her silent daughter, Sukhvinder (whose struggles as a wealthy Indian family in a traditionally white town definitely should have been explored further). Without the time to delve deeper below the surface of these people’s messy lives, they all feel too broadly sketched; as a result, The Casual Vacancy feels much more heavy-handed onscreen than it ever did on the page, a testament to Rowling’s talents as a writer. Those who are suckers for good old-fashioned British class drama will still find things to enjoy here: the acting is all-around excellent, even when there is little for the performers to work with; the social commentary and criticism of class warfare is still one of the most interesting things about the story, though it feels a little more hamfisted; and there is plenty of delightfully sharp humor that will surprise and sting the viewer. Yet one is left wondering what The Casual Vacancy could have been with a little more time and space to tell the story.


The Blu-ray release of The Casual Vacancy includes three featurettes: an introduction to the series, as well as a look at the adaptation and casting processes.

"The Casual Vacancy" is on sale August 4, 2015 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Jonny Campbell. Written by Sarah Phelps. Starring Keeley Hawes, Michael Gambon, Rory Kinnear.

Lee Jutton • Staff Writer

Lee attended NYU for Film & TV Production, but she now works mostly in PR. Her primary obsessions in life are Doctor Who, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Arsenal F.C. When not writing about things she's watched, she's running or kickboxing in preparation for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 


New Reviews