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The Virtues - Episode 1 - Review

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Note: This review has spoilers. For those curious about the show, I've attached the trailer here.

Stephen Graham's star is rising once again. After helping the UK's most watched show of 2019 Line of Duty to one of its best seasons playing the complex antagonist John Corbett, he now steps front and centre into The Virtues, from the creator of This is England and master of the modern-day kitchen sink drama Shane Meadows. It didn't take me a lot to sell me on this drama which also features a PJ Harvey score, and from the first few minutes I knew I'd made the right choice in sampling it. It's an emotional gut punch of an hour where Graham's protagonist Joseph has one final face to face goodbye with his son who is moving with his ex Debbie to Australia to start a new life on the opposite side of the world. This goodbye happens in the first fifteen minutes, and few shows have managed to bring you down to a nervous, emotional wreck this early on, and it doesn't get much happier from there. Fans of classic kitchen sink dramas like Look Back in Anger will recognise similarities present here.

People looking for a crowd pleasing show will have to look elsewhere at least going by this first episode but as far as emotional, raw and harrowing drama goes, The Virtues does it better than most. It's one of the best dramas that Channel 4 have had in ages based of its first episode alone, and coming in at four episodes total, it almost makes you demand the next episode to be released as soon as possible rather than waiting for another week. Up there with Years and Years it has solidified 2019 as a fantastic year so far for British drama on television, creating a complex family dynamic whilst never letting the attention stray from Stephen Graham. He's pretty much in the frame in every shot of The Virtues from start to finish, and it's a true powerhouse performance from the actor that few can equal. You completely buy every moment, helped by the realistic writing and lack of expositionary infodumps that tend to lead to a forced tone.

We follow Joseph's descent into emotional despair like a main character in a Ken Loach movie, and this could make a good companion viewing to I, Daniel Blake. Graham's portrayal of someone drunk in the pub is scaringly realistic, helped by the camera angle that follows him around everywhere he goes, never leaving his side. It's a true definition of a "tour de force" that propels you to keep watching, creating a naturally sympathetic character for the audiences to get behind as it brings a working class story about working class characters to the forefront, creating a real contrast when paired against previous British upper class dramas like The Crown and Downton Abbey. There's little in the way of Guy Ritchie-esque chaos here as the more grounded rawness works wonders, with its script feeling so natural it was almost written like a fly on the wall. It's interesting to note that when asked what sets Shane Meadows aside from anyone else as a creator, Graham comments that "There’s nobody else on the planet that works [like Meadows]. Maybe Scorcese, kind of, a little," and he's completely justified in comparing Meadows to someone like Scorsese, who he's worked with on Gangs of New York with a young Leonardo DiCaprio. Meadows' willingness to change the script allows for a story that "breathes and grows organically, so you’re trying to find out what you’re doing as you’re doing it. There’s a plan and a routine, and it’s mapped out, but it can change at any moment." By showing us this sense of adaptability, it adds to the unpredictability where literally anything could happen here.

The episode starts out bleak and gets bleaker, by the end of the episode Joseph is on his own and headed to Belfast to return to his past. It's not the first Stephen Graham-starring drama to use Ireland as a way of exploring past events (Line of Duty did so this season) but it's the first to actually go there, with Joseph heading by ferry with no cash in his pocket. He's broke, lonely and desperate. If you thought there was a chance that things were going to look up for him at the end of the hour then there's a very real prospect of that not happening. The natural movement and pace of the television series comes at a cost though, and its slow burn may be offputting to those who want answers about Joseph's past will have to wait. But judging by the track record of Meadows' previous work audiences shouldn't be disappointed. If the next three episodes are as good as this one then we could well be looking at show of the year material as the potential is very much there. Judging by the trailer we're in for a set of complex family dynamics that set out to dig a deep dive into Joseph's past in the next few weeks.

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