From left, Michael Gambon, Rufus Jones and Julia McKenzie in...

From left, Michael Gambon, Rufus Jones and Julia McKenzie in "The Casual Vacancy" on HBO. Credit: HBO / Steffan Hill

THE MINISERIES "The Casual Vacancy"

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A methadone clinic in the heart of a picturesque English village, Pagford, has split the town's ruling council. Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) and his spouse, Shirley (Julia McKenzie), want to turn it into a spa. But parish council member Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) refuses to go along with their scheme, arguing that the clinic is a lifeline for many.

When Fairbrother suddenly dies, he leaves what's called "a casual vacancy." Even before his funeral, there's an unseemly scramble to fill it. Some local teens then launch a "Gossip Girl"-style online website that seeks to embarrass some of the aspirants. They succeed -- but what does Andrew (Joe Hurst), Barry's nephew, know about this, or Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), who lives with her junkie mother?

This is a BBC adaptation of the J.K. Rowling bestseller -- her first post-"Harry Potter" literary venture.

MY SAY To understand why "The Casual Vacancy" is such an unsatisfying viewing experience -- and it is -- think of this as an idea that can't quite decide what the idea actually is. Or as a series of character snapshots that never become much more than snapshots. Or a film that achingly wants to convey a sense of fury, injustice, irony, human fallibility and human love, but manages only the "ache," and a dull one, at that.

This near failure is baffling. Get past Rowling's name on the cover, so to speak. Many good actors are here, a couple of legends (Gambon, McKenzie) and solid performances by some relative newcomers (Hurst, Lawrie). "Vacancy" looks good, but looks hardly count.

One major issue is a structural one. By losing the emotional core of the film essentially after the first act -- the death of Kinnear's saintly Fairbrother -- the film spends the next three-plus hours trying to fill the void. Fools rush in to fill it, but because most of them are treated with such contempt, or pity, none can or possibly could.

Meanwhile, director Jonny Campbell, wants to service all of the characters' stories without actually exploring their stories, or offering much emotional resonance. By the end, when payoff time arrives, you feel as depleted -- or vacant -- as they do.


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