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The Casual Vacancy: A Review

It wouldn’t be exaggeration to claim that The Casual Vacancy, adapting JK Rowling’s first adult novel, is the most anticipated BBC drama of the year. Can it live up to the hype?

The production excels in recreating the sense of small-town backstabbing and repression inherent to the novel. It’s like Hot Fuzz, only without either a sense of humour or a likeable protagonist. A pantheon of characters who are all in some way damaged and compromised may work on the page, but it’s difficult to translate to the screen.

Television audiences generally need someone to make an instant connection with. To borrow from Twin Peaks, we need our Special Agent Dale Cooper. With the early departure of Rory Kinnear’s crusader for the disenfranchised, we’re left without such a lifeline.

The acting is as strong as you’d expect, given that the cast has been a key selling point of the series, trumpeted in official publicity and boasting Michael Gambon, Rory Kinnear, Emilia Clarke and more. It’s just a shame they’re all playing such wretched characters.

Calm, detached tracking shots add to the sense of foreboding, but lend an oddly subdued tone to the whole episode, even when the plot demands otherwise.

Pacing in this first episode is also an issue, with a noticeable paucity of plot development plaguing the first half-hour. Things finally get moving toward the end, with the final scene hinting at greater things to come.

We can draw strong parallels with Broadchurch, and not only because of the prettified cinematography and nonspecific south-west accents. With this production having gotten underway soon after the ITV show’s first series, one has to wonder if there’s a relationship.

A strong, atmospheric soundtrack is provided by the band Solomon Grey; one of the few unqualified positives of this adaptation. In the midst of a backlash against austerity, the themes of social class, particularly the demonization of the working class, are timely and relevant, if a little heavy-handed.

JK Rowling’s source material is handled with care and intelligence, but given the pacing issues, one must wonder if a miniseries is really the right medium for this adaptation. It’s hard to imagine The Casual Vacancy being greenlit were it not for the cachet of its author.

This isn’t to say that the show can’t improve in the remaining two hours, but at the end of this episode, I’m left simply wanting to watch Hot Fuzz again.

Rating: 3/5

 

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