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There are no sure things in art. Your favourite band, director, or writer is prone to the occasional misstep. But that said, a series directed by Shane Meadows and starring Stephen Graham is about as close to a sure thing as you can get.
Meadows teams up once again with This Is England alum Graham for The Virtues. The four-part series is a tale of family, history and repressed trauma. Graham plays Joe, a middle-aged man coping with his young son moving to Australia, and a destructive addiction to alcohol. Joe’s alcoholism is tied to a deep, pervading trauma that occurred to him in childhood. At first, this past is only shown in oblique fragments. Yet, as the story progresses, the horrifying story of Joe’s childhood is brought into sharp relief.
The Virtues is anchored by a stunning – perhaps career best – performance from Graham. As Joe, he captures the gnawing anxiety that pervades his life, how this deeply repressed trauma haunts his every moment, and how he tries to suppress these feelings with alcohol.
The first episode – arguably the series’ best – is a great standalone piece. It introduces us to Joe, and shows us his life in Liverpool, while the remaining episodes deal his return home to Ireland to confront his past. You could summarise the episode in about two or three sentences. However, Meadows is such a gifted storyteller that he manages to infuse pathos and meaning into the three long scenes that anchor the hour.
The most affecting scene comes about midway. Here, we see Joe’s alcoholism manifest. He sits in a bar, drinking more and more, bonding with the locals. He’s the life and soul of the party. It’s an entertaining scene, but it’s also deeply unsettling. It’s apparent that alcohol is the balm that stymies Joe’s deeply rooted anxiety. It’s a scene that feels real to a deeply jarring extent.
The second and third episodes are the series’ weakest. It aims for a kind of naturalist, fly-on-the-wall vibe. Joe returns home to Ireland and reconnects with his sister and her family. It’s good enough, and the performances are strong. Yet, the long scenes are weighed down by the heavy subject matter. Sometimes you have to sweeten the medicine somewhat. Just delivering merciless bleakness through long, wrought dialogue scenes can be a bit draining. This Is England worked because the characters were so funny and magnetic. So when things got dark, you really empathised and rooted for the characters. This doesn’t land as strongly in the middle episodes of The Virtues.
But these missteps are more than redeemed by the finale – a masterfully tense and emotional hour of television. No spoilers, but it genuinely delivers the shows’ message perfectly. We see how our history and family inform who we are. And at the climax of the series, one character learns to own and overcome their history, while another is consumed and by it to their ruination. It’s a great episode that lingers with the viewer long after.
Like This Is England, The Virtues is a deeply personal story from Meadows. It deals with the writer/director’s own personal trauma and you can feel that human touch throughout. The show is also bolstered by memorable soundtrack by PJ Harvey. In the shows’ climactic scenes – which are brilliantly interwoven, ratcheting the tension to near unbearable levels – Harvey’s pulsating score injects everything with an extra layer of drama.
The Virtues is another excellent piece of work from Shane Meadows. It doesn’t hit the peaks of career highlights This Is England and Dead Man’s Shoes due to its leaden, overly bleak middle episodes. But it has several stunning moments, and paints a remarkable picture of deep trauma, and the gnawing, insatiable nature of alcoholism. So, while it isn’t perfect, if you fancy a bit of emotionally resonant darkness, The Virtues is for you.