Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Casual Vacancy: The Miniseries


President Hillary Clinton referred to her opponent's base as "a basket of deplorables".  This seems an apt a description of all the characters in J.K. Rowling's first 'adult' novel, The Casual Vacancy.  Everyone in the book was so horrid that I could never care what happened to any of them.  Now we have a television miniseries adaptation of The Casual Vacancy.  This is a rare moment when I did read the book before seeing the series, so now I have a chance to see what they changed and/or kept.

I can understand what J.K. Rowling was going for with The Casual Vacancy.  After spending years as the Grand Wizardess of the Harry Potter Universe, she wanted to emerge as "a serious author" (even though the latter Harry Potter books were very serious, downright dark I'd say).  As such, what more tempting story than something equally sprawling and epic: a major war between fellow citizens in a quaint little town that encompasses all of the current U.K. in a grand allegory.

I pretty much detested The Casual Vacancy, finding it so awful that I'm sure most publishers would not have accepted it save for the fact that with Sprawling Rowling's name attached to it, the book was a guaranteed best seller.  Would the adaptation of The Casual Vacancy do things better?

No.  There is only so much that can be done to make a pretty lousy book into even a so-so miniseries.  You can work only with what you have, and The Casual Vacancy has so many awful defects that even in the truncated version adapted for television there could be only so much that could be done.  This adaptation of The Casual Vacancy is like the book in one way: they are both bad despite the creative mind's best efforts (or perhaps because of them).

Sleepy little Pagford is facing a great crisis.  The EVIL people want Sweethouse Manor, a community center/methadone clinic, shut down stat.  They find all the junkies and losers from The Fields (what we in the U.S. would call "the projects") are spoiling their wonderful little town.  Instead, the EVIL people, headed up by fat businessman Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon) and his bitch of a wife Shirley (Julia McKenzie) want, with Lord & Lady Sweetlove's secret consent, to turn Sweethouse Manor into a spa (Lord & Lady Sweetlove's ancestor having bequeathed it to Pagford for the betterment of the community but the descendants eager to get out of the benefactor business).

This move enrages the GOOD people: Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear), Sikh doctor Parminder Jawanda (Lolita Chakrabarti) and school counselor Tess Wall (Monica Dolan).  They know that Sweethouse Manor serves a greater purpose, and that if closed, it will force those in The Fields to travel for an hour, on an unreliable bus, to another city, Yarvil, which would be devastating to the community.

Fairbrother is the only thing standing in the way of the EVIL Mollisons and their EVIL cohorts from getting their way.  His vote on the parish council stops their plans.

Pity that Barry Fairbrother dropped dead of an aneurysm.

With his seat vacant, the council is short of the quorum.  The EVIL Mollisons now see a chance to break the deadlock and get their way thanks to this 'casual vacancy'.  With that in mind, the EVIL Mollisons push their weak-willed son Miles (Rufus Jones) to run for Barry's vacant seat.   This is done over the loud objections of Miles' wife, Samantha (Keely Hawes).  Jawanda and Wall, horrified at the prospect of a third Mollison on the parish council (especially the weak-as-water Miles, who would rubberstamp everything Momsy and Daddums say) decide something must be done.  Jawanda recruits Tess' husband, Colin Wall (Simon McBurney) over Tess' objections.

Both wives see their husbands as being temperamentally unfit for any elected position, but their objections are ignored: Miles' spinelessness and Colin's need to 'carry on as Barry would' being the motives for them.

Also briefly in the race is Barry's half-brother, Simon Price (Richard Glover), one of the repulsive creatures ever created in all literature.  A foreman at a warehouse, Simon abuses his wife Ruth (Marie Critchley) and his sons Andrew (John Hurst), better known as 'Arf', and Paul (Sonny Ashbourne Serkis) in ways that would shock Nero (short of sexual).  We first see him deliberately smashing the front tire of Andrew's bike and then reprimanding him for having a smashed front tire.  In same scene, Simon mocks Paul using a girl's bike despite Simon's refusal to give him anything else.

And those acts are some of the more pleasant ones Simon commits against his family.

Simon is convinced that as a new parish councilor, his already dirty palms will get more grease, and he doesn't shrink from forcing his family to place Simon Price for Parish Council flyers in Barry's funeral program.  Neither does he shrink from getting stolen goods (such as a large-screen television that he sees in Barry's house, figuring it's his due for being Simon Price).  That TV will play a large part in the future.

Soon all the sleaze of Pagford starts streaming out in full force.  The Wall's son, Stuart (Brian Vernel), better known as 'Fats' (despite being thin), has nothing but contempt for his bourgeois parents and wants nothing out of life other than some good weed and lots of sex.  The object of his desire is Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie), the girl from The Fields who dresses like a slut and has the mouth of a she's obviously a good person.  She has her qualities: caring for her infant brother Robbie and at times for her heroin-hooked hooker Terri (Keely Forsyth), but she is also a right vulgar tart who gives Fats a handjob at the library, though her motives for this are a bit fuzzy.

About the only good person is Kaye Bowden (Michelle Austin), the Weedon's newest case manager who plays no part in any of the wild goings-on around her, and whose daughter Gaia (Simona Brown) has caught Arf's eye.

The election rolls along, but there's a twist in the tale: The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.  Online on the parish website, The Ghost starts revealing very private and secret information on all the candidates.  Simon's pilfering is exposed, sending him into both a panic and fury, down to dumping the television into the river (and nearly throwing Andrew off the same bridge when he accuses his son of being "The Ghost").

He's accidentally right: Andrew hacked into the website and revealed the truth about his father, but didn't actually provide any evidence if memory serves correct.  Miles is held up for ridicule, down to having his man-boobs and weak-willed nature put out there (though this appears to be an open secret).  Colin gets humiliated as well, but still he and Miles gamely go on with the campaign (Simon pulls out).

The EVIL Mollisons grotesqueness continues unabated: Shirley constantly puts down Samantha at every turn, but doing it in a faux-dear Grannie style that is so obvious it is sickening.  At last, the election, one where Barry's widow writes "You're both WANKERS" on her ballot, Colin votes against himself, and Miles wins by one vote.

With the election concluded, the EVIL Mollisons hurriedly call a meeting and vote on Sweethouse Manor, and the vote to close it down to remake it into a spa passes with an almost disinterested Miles voting the family way.  A combination victory party/Howard's 70th Birthday Party is given, but despite their best efforts Lord & Lady Sweetlove snub the upstart EVIL Tory Mollisons by not going to the party (even though they knew they were the 'guests of honor').  Samantha stands up to her bitch of a mother-in-law after having first left Miles, and for once, Miles defies his mother and sides with his wife.

However, the election is still not the end of it.  Arf and Fats have a break when Fats tries to get at Gaia with a little help from marijuana (which Gaia finds physically revolting), and Arf has one more trick as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.  He puts online a short video of a randy Howard having anal sex with his shopgirl, and a humorously enraged Shirley plays it for him as he has a heart attack. 

Sweethouse Manor closes immediately after the vote, which causes devastation for the community, particularly in The Fields.  Terri, who had been making positive steps in her recovery, now has to take an hour-long trip to get treatment, but who should be waiting for her but her on-off boyfriend and his group of junkies.  Krystal comes to her house to find them overrunning the place, and this fills her with terror.  In desperation she takes Robbie and flees to the secret trysting place for her and Fats, telling him she's pregnant (the truth of it is disputable).  In their argument, Robbie wanders off, close to the river.  Krystal, terrified Robbie has drowned, dives into the river.

Fortunately for Robbie, he was picked up by Vikram Jawanda (Silas Carson), Parminder's husband who jogs daily.  Unfortunately for Krystal, she drowns near the Sweethouse's estate when she gets caught in the wires of a television set mysteriously floating by.  Andrew and Simon see Krystal's body and they know the truth, and this is the final break Andrew has with his insanely abusive father.  Simon, in turn, finds that rather than be fired, he got promoted to manager, and now there's a change in him too.

The communities of Pagford and The Fields tries to move on, as gamely as they can.

You really can't fix something that is almost beyond repair, something that The Casual Vacancy book was before it even was picked up as a miniseries. Screenwriter Sarah Phelps had an extremely difficult task on her hands: to make something as unorganized and downright awful as The Casual Vacancy into something more streamlined and functional.  She managed to bring some cohesion to Sprawling Rowling's tome, which took a lot of doing.

Phelps managed this by cutting out so much from the novel.  Of particular note was the whole subplot of the Jawandas and Kaye Bowden.  In the original novel, Parminder was hardly a good person: she belittled her daughter Sukhvinder (Ria Choony) for not being as pretty as her sisters.  Kaye Bowden, for her part, came to Pagford to follow a man, much to the irritation of her daughter Gaia.  Phelps wisely cut the entire Bowden story altogether: here, she is at Pagford due to her job and her job alone.  Phelps also made Bowden a more sympathetic character than Rowling did, a woman who genuinely cares about the Weedons and Gaia and not forever besotted by a man who sleeps with her but who doesn't respect her.

With regards to the Jawandas, Phelps' adaptation was give and take.  Gone were the sisters or Sukhvinder's cutting due to her small amount of facial hair which she cannot remove due to her Sikh faith, and added were whole scenes with Vikram.  In the novel, he was hardly present, a mere shadow that the sexually frustrated women of Pagford thrust their sexual desires on (sex on legs, I think he was described)...all except Samantha, who had a fixation on a member of a boy band one of her daughters was a fan of.  Truth be told, The Casual Vacancy gave the character of Vikram more to do in the miniseries than in the whole of the book.

The biggest change between book and screen regards the fate of the Weedon children.  In the original novel, Jo gleefully drowns little Robbie (where Sukhvinder attempted to resuscitate him), and Robbie's death so horrified Krystal that she rushed home to commit suicide by deliberately overdosing on her mother's smack.  I guess the BBC simply did not have the courage to show a dead baby floating in a river and opted to make this change.  In a certain way it works (apart from sparing the viewer the obvious horror of seeing a dead baby on television).

It ties the Price and Weedon stories together, even if it is in a ghoulish fashion.  It also cleans up a messy part of The Casual Vacancy: cutting out so much and making so many astonishing coincidences.

Phelps cut so many subplots, even whole characters, but also added a few more wrinkles, the most glaring was making Simon the half-brother of Barry.  This really doesn't add much to the story to where we ask what it was doing there.

If you look at the performances, it is the younger set who came out of it much better than the adults.  Gambon and McKenzie had some good moments (such as when they were elegantly escorted out of Lord & Lady Sweetlove's mansion, a nice bit of comedy).  However, when Shirley discovers her husband's debauched infidelity with his shopgirl (who looks like she's in her 60s while he screams such silly lines as "I love your peachy ass"), her looks is one that had me laughing out loud.

Here is this awful, awful woman getting a bit of comeuppance and she should be devastated by the public exposure of her EVIL husband's ass-screwing, and the look she has is indescribably hilarious.  Gambon doesn't do himself any favors when he is starting his heart attack, clutching his chest and making faces to out-do McKenzie's comical grimacing. 

It really is not the actors' fault exactly.  Despite Phelps' best efforts, the script could do only so much to shape Rowling's anti-Tory manuscript, with thin caricatures and one-note characters.  Just like in the book, the GOOD people were always noble (despite being in their own way simply horrible people), while the EVIL people were ALWAYS EVIL, Rowling and Phelps never giving any of the Mollisons any degree of humanity.

Then again, I don't think they were supposed to have any.  We're just supposed to be so revolted by them we would side with Fairbrother/Jawanda/Wall, and the adaptation does make them slightly better people than in the book, where they were awful in their own way.

Yet I digress.  The younger set, as I said, gave better performances, primarily I think because they worked to play people other people could if not relate at least understand, maybe even sympathize, rather than caricatures that Rowling created.  Of particular note is Lawrie as Krystal, who with her eyes and face expressed the deep fears and hurt underneath her tartish behavior and mouth. Hurst too made Andrew extremely sympathetic both in the horrible abuse he suffers and in his hidden desire for Gaia (which in the novel is chock-full of auto-erotic exercises while in the book it's more merely unrequited and thus, cleaner).

Still, The Casual Vacancy adaptation has some of the same problems the book has.  It's so heavy-handed that it sometimes plays like parody.  The names Fairbrother and Sweetloves are a bit too on-the-nose either sincerely or ironically.  The weird appearances of "Death" gives it a slightly Deathly Hallows feel and is almost out-of-place in what is supposed to be serious straightforward 'drama'.  Sometimes director Jonny Campbell couldn't resist going all-out on being anti-subtle (playing The Pet Shop Boys' It's A Sin when Simon is desperate to return the stolen television is a bit much). Sometimes the script contradicts itself: in one scene, Shirley says she knows nothing of tablets, but in another she searches Samantha's online history with the greatest of ease.

Ultimately, if it weren't for the younger actors, The Casual Vacancy would be simply unbearable.  As it stands, it's as good an adaptation of a lousy book written by a famous authoress which would probably not have been given the time of day if not for her name attached to it.  A forgettable series based on a forgettable book with only the younger actors finding any use for it as a calling card, The Casual Vacancy need not be filled.   



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