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HBO's The Casual Vacancy gets around to earning its keep


Powerbroker Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) and his willing wife Shirley (Julie McKenzie) strive to run the show in The Casual Vacancy, a 3-hour miniseries about small town strife. HBO photo

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Contemptible men abound in J.K. Rowling’s “first novel for adults.”

As for the only one who isn’t, well . . . he’s soon dead.

The Casual Vacancy, a three-hour HBO miniseries airing Wednesday-Thursday, April 29-30 at 7 p.m. central each night, is a decidedly bleak affair with a modicum of redemption. There’s no murderer on the loose or mystery to be solved. Instead, the denizens of an outwardly idyllic English village called Pagford are guilty of non-violent crimes of inhumanity.

Forget about any Harry Potter magic or mysticism, although the principal villain of the piece occasionally is haunted by the specter of death masks. And instead of Hogwarts, here’s the longstanding Sweetlove House, a community center serving Pagford’s needy. Parish Council chairman Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Shirley (Julie McKenzie), yearn to transform it into a tourist-drawing spa. But they’re one vote shy of a Parish Council majority, with steadfast Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) vowing to never let Sweetlove go under.

Alas, Barry’s sudden death leaves a “Casual Vacancy” that the Mollisons are determined to fill with their milquetoast, gutless, go-along son, Miles (Rufus Jones). The opposing “Save Sweetlove House” faction backs the equally ineffectual Colin Wall (Simon McBurney), a toupee-wearing, easily cowed school headmaster.

Barry’s half-brother, Simon Price (Richard Glover), a bullying father and thief, also has designs on the vacancy. But will he decide otherwise after the Internet “Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” begins exposing the candidates’ secrets?

The adult male faction also includes an uncaring, condescending plastic surgeon (Silas Carson as Vikram Jawanda). His wife, Parminder (Lolita Chakrabarti), likewise a doctor, is considerably more idealistic. “You wouldn’t know a code of ethics if it punched you in the throat,” she tells her husband in Thursday’s concluding Hour 3.

There’s still hope for some of the teens. Principal among them is Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), who at first glance is a lost-cause delinquent saddled with a drug-addicted mother. But she dotes on her little brother, Robbie (Bryce Sanders), in effect serving as both his mother and guardian angel. A few flashback scenes show how kind Barry was to her in hopes of turning Krystal’s life around.

Andrew “Arf” Price (Joe Hurst), oldest son of the brutish Simon, has a “Pizza Face” complexion but is yet to be ground underfoot. His erstwhile best friend, Stuart “Fats” Wall (Brian Vernel), tends to drag him down, though. His main interests are drugs, sex and masturbating. Sukhvinder Jawanda (Ria Choony), only child of her doctor parents, is quiet as “Fats” is mouthy. But she speaks her own volumes by invariably wearing earphones to tune out her parents.

Produced in association with the BBC, The Casual Vacancy is skillful in depicting the fragility of a small community’s fabric and support systems. The Sweetlove House has come to be Pagford’s lone remaining foundation. Turning it into a would-be tourist magnet would be a soul-selling turn of events. We see how some of Sweetlove’s little victories have added up while the nefarious Howard Mollison derides its beneficiaries as a collective group of “take, take, take” parasites. Gambon plays this role fearlessly, by the way, allowing himself to be exposed in one scene as a man who’s grown so fat that his own fold-over stomach skin has afflicted him with an angry-looking bedsore. Krystal in contrast is reed-thin, reflexively combative and affectingly vulnerable in the presence of small kindnesses.

The seemingly dead-end or rapacious lives of many of these characters may make The Casual Vacancy seem like too much a chore to bear. But screenwriter Sarah Phelps has deftly adapted Rowling’s novel into a cautionary, metaphorical tale that pulls its weight and measuredly draws one in. No, there’s not much of an afterglow. But there is an after-effect born of small moments that resonate.


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