The Virtues tells the story of Joe (a career-best performance by one of the finest actors alive today, Stephen Graham
), a recovering alcoholic working as painter and decorator in Liverpool. With his ex-girlfriend, their son, and her new partner heading to Australia to start a new life, although they have promised Joe he's welcome to visit, he's having a hard time coping. Heading to a nearby pub, he goes on an almighty bender, awakening in his dingy bedsit the next morning covered in vomit and with virtually no memory of the night before. And, as you do in such situations, he impulsively takes a ferry to Belfast. Walking across the border into Louth, he arrives at the house of Anna (Helen Behan
) and her husband Michael (Frank Laverty
). Dishevelled and vaguely threatening, although he insists she knows him, she's adamant she doesn't, and just as Michael looks as if he's about to get physical, Anna suddenly recognises Joe as the brother whom she thought dead for the last thirty years. To reveal too much else about the plot would constitute a spoiler, but a few important characters are introduced in the second episode, who will come to have a vital role in the ensuing story, namely Dinah (Niamh Algar
, in what will hopefully be a breakout role), Michael's tough-as-old-boots sister, and Craigy (an almost unbearably heart-breaking Mark O'Halloran
), one of Michael's employees. As Joe sets about re-establishing links with Anna, we are slowly filled in on why they were separated, why she thought he was dead, and why he is so mentally fragile. At the same time, we learn that just as he is haunted by a trauma from his past so too is Dinah; and although her demons are of a different nature, they are no less emotionally crippling.
Written by Shane Meadows
and Jack Thorne
, and directed by Meadows, The Virtues is loosely inspired by an incident from Meadows's own childhood (to say too much about this would be a spoiler). And as with everything Meadows does, the show is exceptionally well made and effortlessly naturalistic. The milieu of his This is England franchise is a brutal place of violence, racism, and rape, a place controlled by hyper-masculine types, the kind of men who believe the term "toxic masculinity" is an oxymoron (or they would if they knew what an oxymoron was). The Virtues isn't set in entirely the same thematic universe (the female characters are far less passive, the male characters aren't afraid of showing their emotions), but the bleakness is the same; both worlds are occupied by broken people, the only difference is that in The Virtues, they know they're broken.
Aesthetically, The Virtues is impressive without being showy. Bringing his usual sense of cinéma vérité, Meadows does allow himself a couple of flourishes, although they are always justified by the narrative. For example, he shoots Joe's drunken quest for a kebab in the first episode using a fish-eye lens attached to Graham's chest. This creates the sense of a distorted world, without the character ever leaving the frame (or indeed, the very centre of the frame, as the world seems to literally pivot around him). Even the aural design of this scene is different from that of the surrounding scenes, tying us tightly to Joe's compromised perceptions. Another good example is that throughout the first two episodes, Meadows intercuts what seem to be old home movies shot on VHS, before revealing in the third episode that we're actually seeing something quite different.
Structurally, the show is quite unusual. The first episode features next to no plot, serving only to introduce us to Joe. The second doesn't feature a huge amount either, instead focusing on introducing Anna, Michael, Dinah, and Craigy. It's only in the third episode that a recognisable plot with forward-momentum starts to emerge. As unusual a structure as this is, it works well because of the acting, and because it allows Meadows to focus on conveying Joe's repressed pain without the need to worry about narrative beats.
However, the pièce de résistance from an aesthetic point of view is definitely the last 20 minutes of the final episode. To explain what's happening would be to spoil things, but essentially, it's a masterclass in how to create tension with very simple parallel editing. Thanks to the time he has taken to really set up the characters, this final sequence is insanely powerful, nullifying any perceived drag in the first two episodes. Sure, the change in pace could be argued to veer into thriller territory (there's even a race-against-the-clock vibe, and a voiceover of one character desperately trying to get another to answer their phone), whilst the parallel editing could be seen as a concession to artifice, but really, the transition from the documentarian to this more obviously directorially manipulated section is so organic as for the whole thing to work beautifully. In weaker hands, this shift could easily have destroyed the integrity of the piece, but Meadows turns it into one of the most intense passages you'll see all year, not just in TV, but in all filmed drama.
Thematically, the opening scenes of the first episode establish Joe as weary and exhausted as he slumps in a van returning home from work. We don't know anything about him yet, but it's immediately apparent that all is not right with his character, that there's a dead weight. Indeed, emotional weight is one of the show's main themes; not just Joe's but so too Anna's, Dinah's, and Craigy's - all are haunted in one way or another, all are seeking redemption, and if they can't find it, then they seek to escape. For Joe, that involves alcohol; for Dinah, it's violence and hooking up with questionable men. Joe doesn't know why he is so mentally scarred, he just knows that he is, that he is corroding from the inside, and that pain is about the only thing he feels anymore (except when drunk).
Speaking of Joe's drinking, the first episode scene in which he visits a pub is exceptionally well put together, realistically showing us an alcoholic deeply at war with himself. Initially ordering a soft drink, he hesitatingly then orders a beer, makes several attempts to drink, before taking a sip, grimacing, then another, and finally a gulp, giving himself over to the alcohol. All of this is done with virtually no dialogue. What follows is a series of vignettes each set about 15 minutes apart, charting Joe loosening up, ordering more pints, then pints and chasers, then speaking to anyone and everyone in the bar - the sullen loner becoming the life and soul, his mood lubricated by the double vodkas he's downing like water. By the time he's expelled from the bar, he's a mess, falling down drunk, fighting an invisible enemy in the street. It's an extraordinary sequence, with a tour de force performance from Graham, and perfectly modulated rhythm from Meadows and editor Matthew Gray
Of course, the acting is immense throughout. Graham is all repressed pain and stiff upper lip; Algar is the opposite, wearing everything on her shelve and prone to violent outbursts; Behan (a part-time nurse) is all guilt and remorse; and O'Halloran's soft-spoken Craigy is pain personified, looking for someone, anyone, to help him lighten the burden of living. A scene when Joe and Anna get reacquainted is especially brilliant, with its false starts, overlapping sentences, phrasal repetitions, and thematic circling; the kind of things you often find in emotionally traumatic real-life conversations, but rarely see done well on screen. A simple scene shot in a master and two close-ups, the nearly nine-minute sequence is as awkward as it is heart-breaking, and is followed by an equally awkward, although slightly funnier scene in which Anna and Michael try to explain to their children why they thought Joe was dead. On paper, Dinah runs the risk of becoming a clichéd feisty Irish lass. But in the hands of Algar, she's someone whose pain is no less pronounced than Joe's, someone whose behaviour is based wholly on her mental instability. Liam Carney
also gives a terrific performance as Damon, a pivotal one-scene role, deeply pathetic but exuding menace and unrepentant sadism, as does Aisling Glenholmes
as Apphia, Michael and Dinah's mother, all prime, moralistic, condescending religiosity; the worst type of Irish Catholic. Both are loathsome, but both are portrayed brilliantly.
The Virtues is an exceptional piece of work by an exceptional filmmaker. Undeniably bleak, it will undoubtedly be too much for some. However, this is not misery porn, not even close. In Meadows, misery is never gratuitous, because he never loses sight of a sense of catharsis, which is so vital for work of this nature. It starts exceptionally slowly, with little plot in either of the first two episodes, but the astonishing central performances carry it, and it reaches a crescendo of unprecedented power in its final episode. Disturbing, harrowing, bleak, but extremely impressive.