Wrestling J.K. Rowling’s 500-page book into a three-hour miniseries flummoxes “The Casual Vacancy,” a project made with considerable ambition and lyricism, yet which feels scattered and unfocused. Rowling’s deviation from wizard-lit clearly had plenty on its mind, including class distinctions and social justice, but the screen version skims too lightly over an abundance of characters, generally painting the adults as cartoonish or buffoonish, and reserving what little depth and sympathy exists for the teens. Having partnered with the BBC again, HBO likely has the equivalent of a promotable bargain, but there’s otherwise marginal incentive to check into this “Vacancy.”
Rowling apparently gave writer Sarah Phelps and director Jonny Campbell considerable latitude to craft the story in a manner they saw fit, and they have largely settled on the tale of a perpetually angry teenage girl, Krystal (newcomer Abigail Lawrie), trying to look after a little brother and manage a junkie mom (Keeley Forsyth). Yet that key arc plays out against a larger picture, one in which some of the more comfortable inhabitants of Pagford — a community so idyllic it looks like Willie Wonka should have a factory there — want to develop a retail/tourism enterprise in the spot occupied by a community center that serves the less fortunate.
Leading the pro-growth charge is Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) and his wife Shirley (Julia McKenzie), who seek to take advantage of an unexpected death that creates an opening on the parish council in order to push through their agenda. That leads to an unusually heated election, with an anonymous party using the Web to snipe at the candidates, offering another reminder (as if one were needed) that small towns — this one shooting at different locations in the Cotswolds in south-central England — have a way of harboring dark secrets.
Those drawn into the crossfire include Howard and Shirley’s browbeaten son (Rufus Jones) and his frustrated wife (Keeley Hawes); a quiet school headmaster (Simon McBurney) prodded into running; and the boorish Simon (Richard Glover), who is abusive toward his teenage son Arf (Joe Hurst).
There are so many characters, frankly, that “Casual Vacancy” spends virtually all of the first hour just introducing them. The second expands upon that somewhat, before the third finally seeks to bring a measure of tragic resolution to it all, while leaving a number of threads a bit too casually dangling.
To be fair, there are some fine moments and performances buried within the melodrama, such as the shy Arf quietly pining for a new girl in school (Simona Brown). Yet the connections among the various storylines often feel tenuous at best, and Rowling’s themes have an exaggerated Dickensian quality — the sneering rich, indifference toward the struggling underclass, etc. — that is timely enough, but also smacks of heavy-handedness.
Coolly received when it was published in 2012, “Casual Vacancy” represents an understandable turn by its author toward more adult themes, but also formulaic ones. And the filmmakers’ focus on young Krystal isn’t enough to make the project feel as if it tells a fully realized story.
HBO usually airs at least one high-profile, prestige movie or miniseries in the spring, and with the Queen Latifah vehicle “Bessie” due in May, that vacancy has been filled. That leaves this handsome production, like a few of those Pagford candidates, looking like a bit of an also-ran.