Stephen Graham is having something of a moment right now. The 46-year-old has been one of the best actors in Britain for some time, with roles in everything from Little Boy Blue and Boardwalk Empire to This Is England, via Gangs of New York and Coronation Street. Now, fresh from Line of Duty and Save Me, he’s been handed another humdinger of a part in The Virtues.
It’s no surprise to learn that the show hails from Shane Meadows, not only a filmmaker familiar with his work first-hand, but also a filmmaker who is an expert at capturing naturalistic performances from his stars. The Virtues isn’t just made for Graham: it’s owned by him, with Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne crafting what is effectively a one-man show over several parts.
We begin with Joseph (Graham) saying goodbye to his son and his son’s mother, who are about to move to Australia with her new fella, and Episode 1 simply follows him around Liverpool, as he waits to get the ferry out of town. It’s a masterclass in understatement, from Meadows’ intimate but invisible camera to Graham’s utterly convincing hangdog presence. Joseph sits on benches in parks, drinks from bottles, makes friends with strangers in pubs – and, all the while, quietly tees up a drama that delves into trauma and recovery with a raw honesty that’s utterly mesmerising.
Joseph’s arrival in Ireland brings reunions in all their awkward happiness and painful recollections. Helen Behan is fantastically compassionate as Anna, who welcomes Joe into her home, encouraging him to form a bond with a new family that turns out to be no less messy than his own. A romantic subplot rears its head halfway through, involving Anna’s sister, Dinah (Niamh Algar), but where that might have distracted from the central drama with cliches, Algar’s intense performance only reinforces the series’ focus on broken people seeking redemption and closure. The result is a twisting tale of unravelling emotions, superbly acted and flawlessly told by a director who can drift naturally from nailbiting tension to moving honesty in the blink of an eye. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s definitely not one you’ll regret.
The Virtues is available as a box set on All 4.