Shane Meadows’s new British miniseries, The Virtues, stars Stephen Graham as Joseph, a painter, decorator, and alcoholic at a crossroads. We first meet Joseph when he is surrendering his child to the boy’s mother, who is bound for Australia with her new husband. “I’ll always be your father,” Joseph says, with the resignation of a decent man who realizes he has demons he must conquer. Joseph makes his way Ireland to confront past traumas that are revealed through a progression of hazy flashbacks. Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne use the series’s four tidy episodes to craft, through patience and understanding, considerable depth of character. Joseph has numbed himself to the truth of his past through regular bouts with the bottle. On the one hand, he’s a gregarious drunk who will buy drinks for the entire bar until he blacks out, his paycheck spent. Yet he’s no drunken lout; a storm rages in his head.
Graham, best known for playing thugs (he was a particularly vile racist in Meadows’s previous series This Is England) is restrained in this outing. Joseph’s alcoholic binges lead to guilt and blackouts, not acts of violence. Once in Ireland, he moves in with his sister and brother-in law, played by Irish actors Frank Laverty and Helen Behan, who worked powerfully with Meadows on This Is England. Joseph does his best on his return to keep drink at bay. In other roles, Graham’s punchy boxer’s face evoked a caged volatility; in The Virtues he comes off as a man at war with himself. He is defeated, too used to apologizing for everything, desperate to do right, and craving redemption.
Graham’s stunning performance is the centerpiece of an ensemble that has mastered the effortless naturalism developed by the best British social realist directors, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, and Mike Leigh among them. The pressure of pregnant silences amid prosaic conversations is given time to build. In this small Irish town everyone knows everyone else. As relationships are dissected, the atmosphere grows increasingly tense.
Joseph finds employment at his brother-in-law’s construction site where he meets Craigy, another man with a guarded past whom his relative warns is “a bit strange.” Why? One of the pleasures of the series comes from its handling of unhurried revelations. Craigy is brilliantly played by award-winning screenwriter and playwright Thorne; in this role he has the haunted look of a man who is overwhelmed, who has lived far too long in the shadow of dark accusations. Craigy is yet another heartbreaking story. Character and background intertwine as the plot builds, not through the clichés of melodrama, but through dramatic nuance and innuendo.
Niamh Algar plays Dinah, Joseph’s sister-in-law and alter ego. She’s tough and sexy, keeping together body and soul as she tries to cope with her troubled history. When Dinah moves into the house, sexual attraction and the mutual recognition of each other’s trauma becomes increasingly problematic. Their stories run parallel. Both will confront the past in his or her own way as the story moves with stealth toward its striking conclusion.
For some The Virtues, despite its title, will be depressing. Meadows does not create dramas that generate easy empathy. We care for these people, even though they remain determinedly difficult and flawed. This miniseries does not take the conventional path, exploiting an expanded format to beef up plot, showboat action, or keep us laughing. The pace is keyed to generating intimacy with the characters and their struggles. The title provides a helpful perspective on these battles. There is a Christian subtext to the narrative, heavily underlined by the publicity poster, which shows Graham on the ground, his arms flung out as though crucified. But don’t be fooled, the Christ figure modeling here is not as simple or predictable as you might think. Still, the seven Christian virtues (definitions below) should be kept in mind as a guide to following how Meadows and Thorne’s story transcends tragedy to become a tale of human fallibility and triumph.