This review contains spoilers.
When we met Joseph four weeks ago, he was reeling. He was concentrated sorrow and loss, with an uneasy head and a body versed in chaos. When we said goodbye to him in The Virtues finale, Joseph had found peace. Gazing out of the window of his sister’s car, he momentarily closed his eyes and, for the first time since we’d known him, looked serene.
The ground travelled between then and now has been hard-going. We’ve watched Joseph say goodbye to his emigrating son, reunite with his estranged sister, repeatedly conquer and be conquered by drink, remember long-repressed trauma and confront his attacker. It’s been painful. It’s been funny. And thanks to a beautiful cast (Stephen Graham, Helen Behan, Niamh Algar, Mark O’Halloran) and a production committed to naturalism and honesty, we’ve been made to feel as though we were right beside him in every room and around every table.
Over those four weeks, we also saw Joseph find fierce love, a new family that surrounds him like rushing water, and an answer to why his life has been spent running and cringing in the expectation of cruelty. He suffered unthinkable hurt as a child, and as Dena and Craigy’s endings showed, the unthinkable hurt done to children returns.
Dena’s adoption plot was secondary to Joseph’s. It was less developed and given less screen time, but told a similar tale, with a very different ending. Joseph’s mind had protected him from his trauma by hiding it, just as Dena’s mother hid Finn’s letters in a wrong-headed attempt to deny that his birth ever happened. Both sad stories were about the consequences of repression and how pain escapes try as you might to lock it away.
Dena killing her cruel mother as plaster saints looked on from the living room side table was a shocking end, and the best indication we have that The Virtues could be intended to return for another series. In her comically energetic entrance, Niamh Algar’s character was introduced with her fists up, but there’d been little sense that she had such violence in her. Shane Meadows’ work repeatedly tells revenge stories, and Dena choking the life out of her coldly devout mother is the latest in a long series of delayed punishments he’s put on screen.
Dena’s surprising act of revenge was spliced with Joseph’s surprising act of forgiveness. While hers was desperate, his was uplifting, and the message of the comparison felt clear. Mercy and compassion are the graces that free us. Revenge, however just it feels, is only another prison.
There was such grace in Joseph’s story, both in its telling, and in the reason it exists. When repressed memories of a serious childhood assault resurfaced for director Shane Meadows, like Stephen Graham’s character, he was compelled towards revenge, but also like him, Meadows chose different.
Instead of meeting violence with more violence, Meadows created this drama, and gave it an ending illuminated by compassion. In an act of alchemy, he turned ugly trauma into life-affirming art that reasserts the strength of a survivor over his abuser.
Moral strength, not fists and muscle. Joseph confronted his rapist, pitied him, and forgave him with a benedictory kiss. His grace confounded a sick creature like Damon who understands only cruelty and humiliation, but it wasn’t done for him. It was done for Joseph, who has a life and love and a beautiful boy, and sunshine to walk out into. It was done to get peace, long-deserved and finally here.