Review: Is This ‘Vacancy’ Worth the Stay?

When JK Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel The Casual Vacancy debuted in 2012, it was met with somewhat muted enthusiasm and mixed reviews.  The spine of Rowling’s sprawling adult novel is thick and intimidating (it reaches over 500 pages), and a lot of her kid-friendly audience commented that she was merely trying to steer herself away from boy wizards and magical realms. A lot of my fellow Potterheads stopped reading Vacancy halfway through or didn’t start it, so I imagine that they will not be tuning into HBO’s 3-part miniseries.

My personal complaint about Vacancy is that Rowling throws over 30 characters at you very quickly, and she hits the ground running with a huge story cluttered with themes of class and poverty. One of Rowling’s strengths as a writer is that she paints her characters with incredibly vivid brushes—both physically and emotionally. It’s no wonder that almost every single character in the Harry Potter universe is so beloved. With Vacancy, however, she sketches them and then moves on to the next, somewhat leaving the reader in the dust until character’s next appearance.

It appears that the miniseries will have the same problem, but the tapestry of characters is the strongest component in the television adaptation.

In the postcard village of Pagford, beloved councilman Barry Fairbrother suddenly drops dead, leaving an empty seat at a critical voting time. Local bigwigs Howard and Shirley Mollison (a terrific Michael Gambon and a sugary sweet Julia McKenzie) want to close down the community center and methadone clinic to make way for a posh spa and massage getaway. Barry was strictly against this idea (with strong support), but his untimely death opens up a seat to some unsavory characters. While Pagford is picturesque and pristine on the outside, its core is rotting. The gentlemen who throw their hat in the ring are all pretty laughable: Miles Mollison (Rufus Jones) can’t seem to stand up to his own father or his starved-for-attention wife, Samantha (Keeley Hawes, vivacious and bold). Simon Price (who is upgraded to Barry’s half-brother in the series) abuses his wife and two teenage sons at every turn, and Colin “Cubby” Wall considers himself a close friend to Barry and his cause. As candidates make themselves known, “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” is making his voice heard and exposes everyone’s secrets on anonymous online message board. But who is the culprit?

The miniseries does an admirable job of simplifying Rowling’s story while making understandable cuts. The Casual Vacancy could easily have been a 6-part series, but the fans aren’t as rabid for correctness if The Boy Who Lived isn’t involved. In the novel, the council’s main debacle is reassigning a lower class area of Pagford to a different district. This area is full of drug addicts and slumlords, so the older, more affluent council members want to see it go. The change to make the clinic and community center a more luxurious space makes the citizens seem even more selfish and prejudiced.

Those characters, by the way, are the biggest strength of Vacancy. Michael Gambon’s Howard Mollison is an oily, uppity presence whenever he’s on screen. He will banish admiration from any Dumbledore-loving mind. While he’s the most recognizable face, he is overshadowed by an unknown: Abigail Lawrie plays troubled teen Krystal Weedon with an angry ease. Krystal’s family benefits from the methadone clinic (her mother is a terrible drug addict), and she looks after her younger brother, Robbie. She begins a tryst with Colin Wall’s sex-obsessed teenage son Fats and I was afraid the series softened Krystal’s edges. All thoughts of this are forgotten by the second episode, but you want Krystal to get out of Pagford. She looked up to Barry as a mentor, but his death leaves her with no direction and no one to believe in her. Without the proper guidance, Krystal lives up to her disappointing reputation, but she refuses to let anyone see her as anything less than hard. In one of the best scenes, Krystal struggles to hold back her tears after sharing a cup of soup with her mother Terri. Krystal and her mother do nothing but verbally spar and physically beat each other, so when they are allowed a moment of mother-daughter quietness, it reverberates loudly.

Is the adaptation perfect? Not by a long shot, but some could argue that the material isn’t strong to begin with. The layers of the novel are glossed over just to get the story into high gear (it takes a while before it picks up), but the performances are great from everyone. HBO needed to take more of a chance with it. With an expanded running time, The Casual Vacancy would be allowed to feel more bruised and funny.

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