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07th May 2019

REVIEW: Stephen Graham gives a career-best performance in Shane Meadows’ new TV show The Virtues

Wil Jones

A powerful and draining This Is England reunion

Stephen Graham has long moved from “Oh, it’s that guy” status, to potential national treasure territory. But even then, he’s always had a tendency for larger-than-life performances. Combo in This Is England, Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire – he is big (in presence, if not size), he is scary, he is occasionally cartoonish.

The Virtues looks set to prove, however, if there was any doubt, that Stephen Graham is far more than that.

The new show from Shane Meadows, the genius director behind This Is England and Dead Man’s Shoes, sees Graham reteam with the man that gave him his most iconic role. And unsurprisingly, the reunion brings us an excellent piece of powerful and humane British television.

On the surface, The Virtues might seem like an ‘issue-based’ series. Joseph (Graham) is a barely-on-the-wagon alcoholic, who spirals onto one massive bender when his son and ex-wife emigrate to Australia. Waking up to the hangover from hell, and at his lowest ebb, he boards a ferry to Ireland to confront his buried childhood trauma, and the horrific abuse he suffered in the Irish care system.

However, you wouldn’t get half of this from watching the first episode. Meadows takes full advantage of the episodic television format to focus almost entirely on Joseph’s bender and subsequent hangover. Much like how This Is England was a film about characters first, then racism, The Virtues takes its time to establish Joseph as a human being first, not just a vehicle for an issue.

That first episode is an absolute tour de force from Stephen Graham, and arguably the greatest work of his career. After an absolutely heart-wrenching goodbye to his son, Joseph finds himself alone in an unknown pub. He begins to buy drinks for strangers. The mood goes from nervous, to joyous, to dangerous. Graham – who doesn’t drink – embodies absolutely every stage of intoxication, as well as possibly anyone, has ever on a television show. As he aimlessly, angrily roams the streets after hours, Meadows switches to a chest-mounted camera on Graham’s face, capturing Joseph’s sense of frustration and disorientation.

The episode also includes one of the most visceral and gruelling hangovers ever captured on screen. Graham’s dedication to body fluids is impressive (and skin crawling), but more than that, it is hard to think of a film or show that better understands the fear and regret that comes after drinking to excess.

The second episode is more traditional – Joseph meets his long-lost sister, and starts to confront his past, and after the daring opener it does feel a tad less thrilling. Still, the acting remains absolutely at the highest standard, especially with the additions of Niamh Algar and newcomer Helen Behan as Joseph’s sister and sister-in-law. Very little is actually revealed, and the action focuses more on Joseph trying to integrate into his sister’s life with as little friction as possible than anything else. Meadows is comfortable taking his time and is no hurry to get to the ‘answers’. The majority of information about Joseph’s past is conveyed through ghostly VHS flashbacks – videotape has never been so haunting.

Notably, it feels like Meadows’ first work that is about adulthood. Films like Room For Romeo Brass and Somers Town excelled at capturing the listlessness and energy of youth – in The Virtue, these are characters with lives, and pasts and regrets. In a recent Guardian interview, Meadows opened about how he experienced an incident of sexual abuse as a child, and how Joseph’s story is inspired by his own past, and that honesty shines through.

In a filmography full of personal, heavy themes, The Virtues might be his most difficult and personal work to date.

The Virtues starts on Channel 4 on Wednesday, May 15th, at 9pm.