At first reference, the title of J.K. Rowling’s 2012 novel “The Casual Vacancy” indicates the seat left in a parish council after the untimely death of a beloved local man (Rory Kinnear). But soon enough, a Shakespearean vision of his ghost tells us what it’s really all about: “It’s the grave. Yawns open briefly and it’s filled by us. Dead meat. It’s dark and it’s lonely… it’s so lonely.”
So no lighter than the Harry Potter books, then.
Veteran British TV writer Sarah Phelps, writing with Rowling’s collaboration, has constructed a compelling if bleak three-part miniseries, airing tonight and tomorrow on HBO. Whatever the opposite of magic is, that’s what infuses the small English town of Pagford, where a struggle is brewing over the future of a community center. Michael Gambon (who starred in six of the Potter movies) plays Howard Mollison, a longtime business owner who, with his wife (Julia McKenzie), aims to turn the center into a spa, thus removing the unsavory elements who frequent it, such as patients at a methadone clinic. Barry Fairbrother (Kinnear) was the council member who most frequently and loudly stood up against such tactics — but now he’s gone, dead at age 40. While his friends reel at the loss, opportunists mobilize to run for the empty seat.
What interested me most about “The Casual Vacancy” was not its small-town politics, but its focus on the youth of Pagford — which is perhaps not surprising. Like in Rowling’s other work, the kids are largely more sympathetic — and certainly more aware — than their parents, who tend to be oblivious at best and villainous at worst.
Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie) is a standout as the teen daughter of a heroin-addicted single mother (Keeley Forsyth); by default, Krystal is tasked with raising her young brother alone. Her thin veneer of toughness is plastered over despair at her circumstances and at the death of Kinnear’s character, the rare adult who’d cared enough to offer to help her get a job after she finished school. When she agrees to date a horndog schoolmate named Stuart (Brian Vernel, also excellent), it’s for the simple prospect of interest and attention from another person. The look of boredom on her face while they’re having sex — or more accurately, he’s having sex with her — is wrenching.
Two brothers, Andrew (Joe Hurst) and Paul (Sonny Ashbourne Serkis), are hapless victims of their dim, rageaholic father (Richard Glover), who’s so petty that he breaks Andrew’s bike by way of punishment for some slight or other. Barry was one of the only adults who suspected something was wrong; “They’re too quiet,” he remarks to his wife early on in the first episode.
Sukhvinder (Ria Choony), the teen daughter of a pair of doctors (in which the low-income clinic worker wife scorns her wealthy husband’s cosmetic surgery practice), is never without her headphones. Her mother (Lolita Chakrabarti) tells a friend, with frustration, that she won’t take them off and has to be dragged out of her room occasionally. Eventually, we see Sukhvinder on the school bus, the camera behind her head as the kids behind throw wads of paper at her and laugh. And thus her headphones make perfect sense.
Stuart, who manipulates Krystal into hooking up with him, is less likable than the others, but no less a well-drawn teenager, rambling on constantly about masturbation, quoting nihilist philosophy and smoking pot to spite his flummoxed parents (Monica Dolan and Simon McBurney). He’s capable of cruelty but not cruel, exactly — just constructing his idea of what a rebellious teenager ought to look like.
Meanwhile, the rot that envelops Barry in one resident’s fever dream is everywhere in Pagford, most literally in the open sores festering on a couple of the adults (I won’t ruin the reveals, but that is some fine, if disgusting, makeup department work). A sense of despair pervades the town, as if Barry were the last piece of moral ballast holding it up. Two female characters (Chakrabarti and Michele Austin) toil away trying to help the less fortunate, the former as a doctor and the latter as a social worker. But both are stymied by apathy, bureaucracy and the increasingly prevalent idea (an American import?) that those who fail in life only did so because they didn’t try hard enough.
A three-hour visit to Pagford — which Rowling said was inspired by the “snobby” middle-class town in which she was an unhappy teenager — is enough to illustrate clearly why the author would have created a magical escape for children when she began writing. The steely-smiled condescension and calculation we see in “The Casual Vacancy” would have even dementors running scared.