Writer-director Shane Meadows has been chronicling working-class life in the overlooked region of The Midlands in the UK since the late 90s. In his films Twenty Four Seven (starring Bob Hoskins), Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (starring Robert Carlyle and Shirley Henderson) and his collaborations with Paddy Considine (A Room for Romeo Brass, Dead Man’s Shoes, Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee), Meadows has given a voice to an aspect of British life which is increasingly being buried under period films starring international stars from the UK such as Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, who attended the elite private schools Eton and Harrow. Meadows is best known for the phenomenal film and TV series This is England, which follows a gang of ‘skinheads’ (supporters of the neo-Nazi groups the NF and BNP) in the 1980s. The television series, in particular, features some of the best acting to be seen anywhere in the last decade, with the highlights being Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun and Stephen Graham, amongst an ensemble cast delivering incredible work across nine episodes.
Meadows has now reunited with Stephen Graham for The Virtues, a four-part mini-series which was shown on Channel 4 in the UK in May 2019 (and is still available on 4OD). It now comes to Topic, a new streaming service in the US curated for a curious and engaged audience seeking smart, provocative and meaningful entertainment. Topic features North American premieres and programming from around the world, complemented by a diverse slate of originals. Stephen Graham is one of the best actors working today, combining British independent films and UK TV dramas with bigger-budget American film and TV. He has worked with directors Guy Ritchie, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg and Michael Mann and is known for playing Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire. Meadows also re-teams with his This is England co-writer Jack Thorne for The Virtues, who is also known for his work on The Cursed Child (the smash-hit West End play set in the Harry Potter universe). The Virtues is loosely based on Meadows’ own experiences, when he realised as an adult that he’d been experiencing depression, breakdowns and panic-attacks due to long-buried childhood trauma, surrounding an incident of sexual abuse.
Graham plays Joseph, a builder/decorator from Liverpool who is trying to cope with the fact that his nine-year-old son Shea is moving to Australia with his ex (who he has a good relationship with) and her new partner. Joseph is an alcoholic who has been sober for around two years, but the upset of his son moving away leads him to have an extremely drunken night in a pub with a group of strangers. Feeling like he doesn’t have much reason to stay where he is, he gets a ferry to Ireland and tracks down his long-lost sister Anna (Helen Behan), who he hasn’t seen for thirty years. Joseph and Anna were orphaned in Ireland and ended up in a Children’s Home. Anna was adopted by a nice family and then Joseph ran away from the Home, ending up in Liverpool with an aunt. After the initial shock of seeing Joseph again (who she presumed was dead), Anna welcomes him into her busy, crowded home with her husband Michael (Frank Laverty), three children and Michael’s sister Dinah (Niamh Algar), who is also crashing there temporarily. While in Ireland, Joseph starts to experience panic attacks and memories of his childhood in the Children’s Home come flashing back, revealing the source of many of his current issues.
The cinematography by Nick Gillespie is interesting, with the flashback scenes shot as if filmed by a camcorder, which does make them seem more authentically 80s. At the start of the second episode, there is a long sequence that follows Joseph through the Irish countryside, as he has run out of money and has to walk many miles to his sister’s house, sleeping rough along the way. This is beautifully shot and also accompanied with original music by none other than PJ Harvey. Joseph’s reunion with Anna is extremely emotional and well-acted by both Graham and Behan. Niamh Algar’s Dinah becomes a central character as the series goes on and the trauma in her past is also gradually revealed. This being Ireland, Catholicism and the draconian abortion laws still heavily influenced by religion (up until extremely recently) are a feature. Algar’s acting is also incredible and it would be easy to imagine her slotted into the This is England ensemble.
The only criticism that can be levelled at The Virtues is that the denouement escalates into melodramatic territory and starts to stretch credulity, when up until this point, it has been grounded in a subtle and nuanced reality (anchored by the excellent writing and acting). It is a shame that the last thirty minutes or so tarnishes what has been an excellent drama that has used silence and the unspoken so well. Graham is extremely skillful at conveying the layers that make up Joseph, frequently performing the chirpy Scouser character on the surface, but there being an underlying tension, aggression or heartbreak underneath. The Virtues of the title refers to the daily heroism of people who have been through unimaginable stresses, abuses and traumas still getting up everyday and going about their lives. Meadows is one of our foremost writers who is documenting contemporary working-class British life and should be as highly regarded as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. His move from film into television has worked extremely well, with him being able to explore characters and themes in more depth. It is hoped he will continue in this format and keeps peeling back the veneer on British society.