The Casual Vacancy centers on Pagford, a seemingly idyllic English village with a cobbled market square and ancient abbey. Behind the pretty facade, however, is a town at war: rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils. The story begins with the death of beloved Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother, leaving a seat on the council vacant. Those running for a place soon find their darkest secrets revealed on the Parish Council online forum, ruining their campaign and leaving the election in turmoil.
When J.K. Rowling -- the well-known creator and author of the 'Harry Potter' series -- decided to publish her first 'adult' novel in 2012 with 'The Casual Vacancy', it was a day-one purchase for me. However, after reading about 100 pages, I gave up on the book and never wound up finishing it. I found the novel to be a rather dull read and never found myself engaged in either the story or the characters inhabiting it.
I wasn't the only one who disliked Rowling's story. The book got rather mixed reviews by critics and the general public alike, but since the storyteller is arguably the most famous living author in the world (and inarguably the wealthiest), the BBC and HBO couldn't pass up the chance to turn her story into this three-part mini-series, which aired in February 2015 in the United Kingdom, and in April on HBO. This is one of those rare instances where I had partial but not complete knowledge of the story going in (as opposed to complete or none), but I think I can safely say that this mini-series isn't any better than the novel and, if it is, the parts of the novel I never finished must have been pretty bad.
The story of 'The Casual Vacancy' takes place in the English village of Pagford where town councilmember Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) has met an untimely death. Barry dies in the opening pages of Rowling's book (so his demise really isn't a spoiler here), but lives a good half hour into the first episode of the mini-series, and continues to appear throughout in various flashbacks and/or characters' dreams. Barry's death leaves an opening on the council, which is in the process of taking an important vote on whether the town's local community center and health clinic should be turned into a health spa. Barry was one of the voices crying out in defense of the center, while the head of the council, Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon), is the rallying voice for the spa.
Barry's demise results in three candidates vying for the vacant council position, but all three men running for the spot have varying degrees of incompetency. Mollison wants his son, Miles (Rufus Jones), for the position, but Miles comes across as a weak and ineffective leader, something his wife, Samantha (Keeley Hawes) seems to know all-too-well. Barry's half-brother Simon (Richard Glover) decides that he'll use Barry's name and his relationship to him to try and win the election, but Simon was never close to his half-brother and is actually a low-level criminal who also is pretty abusive to his two sons. Finally, there's Cubby Wall (Simon McBurney), who is the local headmaster of the school. He was actually a close friend of Barry's, but he's so unsure of himself that he may prove no more effective than the other two men should he be elected to the job. While the three men are running for election, an unknown person starts posting hidden facts about the trio on the Internet, posing as 'The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother'. The secrets being revealed not only affect the candidates, but those around them, as venom and backstabbing starts to occur between all the major players in the story.
The characters listed above are just a small sample of what viewers have to keep track of during this roughly three-hour presentation (divided into three episodes). More interestingly, there are very few people of quality in the bunch, as each citizen of Pagford that we're introduced to seems to be dealing with one thing or another, and not many of these people are the types you'd want to hang out with. In fact, it's the teenagers of the town that seem to have their heads screwed on a lot better than the adults, and the most interesting characters in this tale are those of teens Stuart 'Fats' Wall (Brian Vernel) and Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), who wind up involved in a relationship with each other during the course of the mini-series. Stuart is the adoptive son of Cubby who, naturally, doesn't 'get' his parents (nor they him), while Krystal has been forced to pretty much raise her baby brother on her own, as her mom is addicted to drugs and a serious junkie.
There's no doubt that the acting talent assembled for 'The Casual Vacancy' is pretty impressive, although American audiences are likely only to be familiar with Michael Gambon. It's the story here that is the real problem, as the first two hours feel sluggish and lumbering, no doubt suffering from the fact that there are just way too many characters to get to know in such a short amount of time. I do think the third hour redeems the mini-series somewhat, but not to the point where I feel the need to recommend this release. The bottom line here is that if you disliked the novel, you're probably not going to like the mini-series – however, if you were a fan of the book, this may be something you'd enjoy (although I've read there are a vast number of differences between this presentation and the written word). For everyone else, though, I think this is worth passing on.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Casual Vacancy' gets elected onto Blu-ray in an eco-friendly keepcase that houses the 50GB dual-layer disc along with an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet digital copy of the mini-series. The keepcase slides inside a cardboard slipcase, whose artwork matches that of the keepcase's slick. There are no front-loaded trailers on the Blu-ray, and the main menu is a standard Warners' one, with a still of the box cover artwork and menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region free.
Most of my issues with the video quality of 'The Casual Vacancy' has more to do with the way the mini-series was shot, rather than any troublesome issues with this transfer. Filmed on digital equipment at the 2.40:1 aspect ratio (the box cover incorrectly states 1.78:1), director Jonny Campbell seems to be obsessed with sunlight in many of his shots, and the glare and flaring of sunbeams off the camera lens is a constant annoyance in almost all of the outdoor imagery. Also, although one would expect some background details to be blurred as the camera focuses on the forefront, there are odd shots in this movie where objects rather close to the actors seem blurred for no obvious reason. Again, all these issues appear to be with the way the movie was filmed.
In terms of detail, this is an average Blu-ray release. Some of the outdoor scenes show a great deal of depth and color, but a lot of the indoor stuff is rather flat and somewhat soft in appearance, and a few even seem to suffer from a bit of excess noise. Black levels throughout are okay, but nothing deep or inky. There's little, if anything, in terms of serious glitches in the image, though, and I was hard-pressed to find any problems with banding, aliasing, or pixilation.
The only audio option here is a lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which sadly isn't impressive at all. Most of the audio comes from up front, with the rears only really being used to enhance the musical soundtrack of the mini-series. Even then, the surround speakers are only being used in the most subtle of ways, to the point that most listeners/viewers aren't even going to notice that their rear speakers are active at all. With all that in mind, however, there are no glitches to speak of in the audio. Dialogue is crisp, clear, and properly mixed with the ambient noises and musical score.
Subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish (Latin), French, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
There's no shortage of good actors in 'The Casual Vacancy' (although the majority of them won't be familiar to American audiences), but even that can't overcome the rather dull and uninteresting source material. I suppose fans of J.K. Rowling's novel might get more out of this than I did, but otherwise I think this one is safe to avoid. Skip It.