Three-part mini-series from the J. K. Rowling novel lifts the lace curtain on one of those fetching Lake District towns only to find a sinful PEYTON PLACE under the tea cozy; but with the ‘50s-era tell-all novel replaced by a Poison-Pen internet site.* The story-engine propelling the somewhat tired character revelations starts with a death on the parish council, a loss that leaves the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title. It means a special election, and a new board member who will tip the vote on commercial development of an estate long restricted for use as a Community Center. Rowling’s real target is modern Britain, and she writes a despairing portrait of hopeless lives, low social mobility & New Age class warfare. The film works best when it holds to her sense of brutal social comedy with a town apparently populated by Syltherin alumni. But Rowling casts her net too wide, stacking the deck with so much pre-determinism the comeuppances & tragedies give off little emotional kick. (The sheer loathsomeness of the characters must have been less off-putting on the page.) As elderly class- striving meanies, Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie* are deliciously appalling, but only young Brian Vernel, as a likable horny sod who turns out to be a first class shit, gets to play against his story arc and create something like a whole person.
DOUBLE-BILL: *Julia McKenzie has recently been busy as Agatha Christie’s dowager sleuth Miss Marple. Christie's world-view isn't all that far from Rowling’s, though you won’t find it in the McKenzie version. For that, you have to go back to the 1980s series, starring the remarkable Joan Hickson, where surprisingly dark undertones are pulled out of the stories and the cobblestone streets of St. Mary Mead. A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED/’85 probably pairs up best with VACANCY, though the current DVD edition is a soggy looking thing. OR: For a truly nasty, small town Poison-Pen classic, there’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU/’43.