Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling explores class warfare in this BBC modern drama

The Casual Vacancy is an ambitious co-production between the BBC and HBO. It has been adapted from J.K. Rowling’s sprawling novel that goes well beyond the author’s incredibly successful Harry Potter books in terms of sophistication and maturity. The Casual Vacancy is a peculiarly British drama, centered on the seemingly idyllic English village of Pagford. The ensemble drama explores the rich web of connections in this small town when a key member of the parish council unexpectedly dies, setting off an internal skirmish that reveals the beating heart of Pagford. Those coming from her Harry Potter series expecting fantasy material should probably look elsewhere.

Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) is a respected part of the community and a member of the town’s parish council. Howard (Michael Gambon) and Shirley Mollison are an elderly, scheming couple that want a critical vote on the parish council to go their way. Howard and Shirley believe the junkies and lower working classes are threatening the village’s way of life. They want to shut down a local community center, primarily used by the poor, and turn it into a spa to push the riff-raff out of town. Class warfare in this pretty English village is the primary theme of The Casual Vacancy, approached in a distinctly British manner.

One of the narrative’s main problems is that this is a true ensemble drama with nearly two dozen characters given development over the course of three one-hour episodes. It is a group of typically colorful British caricatures, some realistic and some included more for humor. The main focus seems to be the troubled young Krystal, a teen saddled with her junkie mother and baby brother. Despite her difficult life that has included behavioral problems at school and coping with her mother’s continued problems, Barry has mentored Krystal and given her a path for life after school. That is all shattered when Barry unexpectedly passes away, greatly affecting the entire Pagford community.

Barry’s spot on the council is a critical vote and three different people decide they will run to replace Barry’s vacated seat. The competitive election truly brings out the worst in people, exploring hidden battles that have been going on between Pagford’s residents for years. The fall-out from his death reveals a rich tapestry of connections between the people of Pagford, from the very rich to its poorest members. It is clearly meant to be taken as a microcosm of British society as a whole, reflecting the class divide.

The pithy British humor occasionally inserted is not enough to liven up the meandering narrative…

J.K. Rowling moves from the world of fantasy into a different kind of fabricated dramedy. The Casual Vacancy aspires to be a characterization of English society in the mold of Dickens. Three hours are simply not enough to credibly build up this many characters and make us completely care about them. The pithy British humor occasionally inserted is not enough to liven up the meandering narrative, which seems far more concerned with making a “serious” statement about social justice and certain political values.

The Casual Vacancy is not a total misfire but works sparingly. This is a reasonably coherent adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novel with a strong cast of performances. The English drama takes itself and its message a little too seriously at times, hurting its ultimate entertainment value. The sharply drawn caricatures are funny at times but leave the viewer feeling emotionally empty by the end.

Movie ★★★☆☆

Casual Vacancy Blu-ray screen shot 12

The Casual Vacancy is a mini-series of three episodes, each running around one hour in length. The complete series is included on a single BD-50 from Warner Bros. Each episode is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio at 1080P resolution. Encoded in AVC, the video encode for each episode averages approximately 15 Mbps. This is nice, pleasant video well worth a look on Blu-ray.

The setting of Pagford is a charming, picturesque English village. The video quality emphasizes its village greens in crisp clarity befitting modern video. It contains a rich, bright palette that looks inviting in exterior scenes. The sharp image lies somewhere between television and theatrical production quality. While lacking the extreme clarity and sharpness of major films, the consistent clarity reveals a vivid presentation. Black levels are solid, rendering fine shadow delineation. Contrast is perfect, kept in check by a refreshingly neutral color balance with great flesh-tones.

I have no reason to believe this Blu-ray presentation is anything but an unprocessed, transparent reproduction of The Casual Vacancy. The transfer lacks any egregious mistakes and is technically fine. Detail is a little soft but has not been filtered, fairly typical for something shot for television.

Video ★★★★☆

The Casual Vacancy receives a fine 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack which includes an active sound design. Featuring cleanly-recorded dialogue and clear fidelity, the surround presence is occasionally active. This is a nicely balanced mix between score and dialogue, one that has a decent spread across the front channels. For what amounts to a television drama without a lot of action, the soundtrack is fairly impressive. No one will mistake it for an action soundtrack but the subtle cues and surround activity supports everything happening in the mini-series.

The following optional subtitles are included in a white font, which do appear outside the widescreen video frame. English SDH, French, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

Audio ★★★★☆

The Casual Vacancy arrives in a cardboard slipcase. An UltraViolet digital copy of the mini-series is included which redeems in HDX.

This set of featurettes is repetitive on some level, select quotes and clips are repeated if you watch all three of them. Heavily featured is screenplay writer Sarah Phelps, tasked with adapting J.K. Rowling’s novel. The other featured interviewee is director Jonny Campbell. Glimpses of on-set footage are shown in all three. A few cast members are interviewed as well. The missing elephant in this room is J.K. Rowling herself, absent from these featurettes. She gave this project her full blessing so it would have been interesting to hear about the changes.

An Introduction to The Casual Vacancy (08:33 in HD) – An overview of the series, including a brief introduction to the main characters, plot and locations. Viewing this is almost essential if you haven’t read the novel before viewing. The first episode is slow to develop and watching this would have made everything clearer.

Adapting The Casual Vacancy (09:49 in HD) – How the book was brought to the screen is revealed, including keeping all 23 characters from it.

Casting The Casual Vacancy (13:31 in HD) – A featurette highlighting members of the ensemble cast.

Extras ★★★☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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