The Virtues episode 1 review: mature, powerful character drama

Stephen Graham gives a career-best performance in Shane Meadows’ new Channel 4 drama The Virtues…

This review contains spoilers. 

“Peace, it’s all you want, a bit of peace” says Joseph, swaying drunk, to an off-screen street preacher before The Virtues’ second ad break. By the end of the hour, you desperately want him to find it.

In Joseph, director Shane Meadows, co-writer Jack Thorne and actor Stephen Graham have created a character strobing with vulnerability whose struggles feel achingly real. He’s devastated by the loss of his son to an overseas move, and fighting hollowing loneliness.

The magic for television is that all that’s put on screen without ever having him say it. Joseph says the opposite in fact, like most of us when we’re really drowning. He’s fine, he repeats, he’ll be alright. The more he says it, the clearer it is that he’s in trouble.  

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Episode one sets Joseph on his journey, hinting at its nature through invasive and unwelcome childhood memories, but never saying too much. The whole episode shows restraint, setting up the question of what happened to Joseph as a boy while also letting us know through flashes of images. This is nothing as exploitative as a mystery thriller. It’s just leading us to the pain gently, if that’s the right word.

The variety of tones struck in just 40-odd minutes is remarkable. Scenes move from silence to noise and back again. Whether silent or pissed and expansive, Joseph is a character that holds your attention, and your heart. Graham is painfully convincing in the role, making you invest in his failings and virtues (screwing the lid back on that bottle in the playpark was a show of more strength than any cinematic superhero feat you can name).

He’s introduced wordlessly, distracted from a babbling workmate on the drive home, then caught by tears looking out the window at kids playing. He takes a long, silent walk from his flat to his ex’s house for a goodbye dinner the night before she, her new man and Joseph’s nine-year-old son emigrate to Australia. Then it’s a pub, and the first drink and the second, and the countless ones after that.  

The pub scene is typically fluent storytelling from Meadows’ gang, starting with a man sitting at a table and ending in bodycam chaos. We see Joseph stroking a full pint and taking a first tentative sip before draining it and acting the recognisable charade of an alcoholic, ordering another pint as if it’s a novel idea that just this minute occurred to him, when it was inevitable as soon as he brought the first to his lips.  

He wakes up the next morning covered in vomit and piss and makes a silent resolution to go on a journey. To Ireland, in search of something that has to do with a black and white photograph of a young girl’s confirmation. After a comic sketch with a jobsworth, we leave him on the ferry to Belfast, having known him for a day in his lifetime, 46 minutes in ours, but feeling that he’s as real as family. 

A sense of family, to hear his cast members describe it, is what director Shane Meadows creates on set. His collaborative, nurturing style lets them give naturalistic performances that convey rare truth on screen. The relationship he’s developed with Stephen Graham over the years of This Is England and its television sequels has clearly paid a dividend in the mature telling of this powerful story.

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Read Shane Meadows and the cast discuss The Virtues here.