The Casual Vacancy opens on a series of idyllic pillow shots of burbling brooks, rich green fields, cobblestone streets, and quaint shops. A sign proclaims this heaven on Earth to be Pagford, a small English village that practically reeks of inherited, uncirculated money, and so it doesn’t take long for the irony of this beauty to assert itself. Like many gorgeous burbs or downtowns, Pagford is meant to be enjoyed by just a few. Adapted from J.K. Rowling’s novel, the miniseries initially lulls the audience into a mood of mildly bored, relaxed accommodation that’s typical of watching British soaps and mysteries that air on PBS or BBC, offering American audiences a voyeuristic pleasure tour of old wealth that’s so alien to a middle-class person’s world as to represent a mythological fairy land.
In the case of The Casual Vacancy, that vicarious comfort is intended as a deliberate misdirection, as the miniseries is concerned with the blood sacrifices that must be made to preserve a place like Pagford. The parish council is in the midst of passionate debate: Their leader, Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon), a wealthy shop owner, wants a community-services institution to be turned into an elaborate spa that will cater, of course, to people like him. Such a renovation will send the have-nots who live in the ghettoized “Fields” to the next town over by bus to receive food and rehabilitative treatments that are necessary for maintaining their precarious existences. About half of the council violently disagrees with Howard, particularly Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear), a do-gooder solicitor who works with recovering drug addicts when not at war with Howard, rendering him a popular local liberal who actually practices what he preaches. Unfortunately, Barry drops dead of an aneurysm, opening a “casual vacancy” in the parish, leaving the various factions of the council scrambling to get a replacement elected who will vote the way they want on the community center.
Like Rowling’s Harry Potter books, The Casual Vacancy is informed with a Dickensian outrage with class inequality, and the author, like Dickens, also has a flair for storytelling and juicy caricature. The rage and sensationalist taste for the mechanics of yarn-spinning join to fashion something engagingly funny and nasty, but director Jonny Campbell and screenwriter Sarah Phelps soften these qualities, dialing down Rowling’s chaotic, nearly free-associative humor. Like most of the Harry Potter films, this Casual Vacancy is a little too earnest, which renders the depictions of the class warfare trite and preachy. Most of the poor people of the Fields are all predictably drawn as endangered fawns, while most of the town’s rich are clueless or nasty.
Yet, grace notes abound, particularly in the performances. Gambon plays Howard’s piggish self-absorption with intense, humanizing vitality, especially opposite Julia McKenzie as Howard’s shrewish wife. Their duets are such a marvel of lively, compactly observed character behavior as to recall the films of Mike Leigh. The Mollisons are shown to have a real marriage (passionate, conspiratorial, screwed up), which lends them stature that allows drama to bloom alongside the moralizing. Most striking, though, is Abigail Lawrie as Krystal, the daughter of a drug addict that Barry used to assist. Krystal serves an even more schematic function in the story than the Mollisons (she’s the lamb that must be sacrificed to corruption), but Lawrie plays the role with an unshakable sense of vulnerable authority, offering a chilling testament to the sorts of people who’re thrown into the metaphorical wood chipper every day, so that a Mollison might enjoy a better massage or golf course. Lawrie disrupts the coziness that occasionally threatens to calcify The Casual Vacancy into another lush, prestigious book-on-film, imbuing it with an authentic cry of the damned.