The typography of the mini-series, “The Virtues,” makes it clear that this work has a religious bent, but religion is not in the text so much, but rather in the philosophy behind the script. Director Shane Meadows has co-written with Jack Thorne a semi-autobiographical story about a traumatic childhood event that the victims are only able to confront as adults with different outcomes. “The Virtues” isn’t preachy but dives into a reality on the edges of respectability.
If you are like me, a non-Christian, then you’ll want to remind yourself of just what those virtues are. The concept of virtues does, of course, pre-date Christianity. Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato felt that temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage were virtues in the sense of desirable attributes. In Christianity, there are seven heavenly virtues. The four classical cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance and courage/fortitude. The three theological virtues are faith, hope and charity.
In an interview, Meadows said he wanted “to emphasise how heroic it is for some people just to live a normal life.” “The Virtues” is about normal people, not people who are famous or extraordinary in their achievements at work or play. Meadows own father, a lorry driver, chanced upon a murdered child and was initially a suspect. That incident caused a major disruption in their family’s life, and setting up the circumstances for Meadows own trauma (discussed opening in The Guardian interview.
Meadows’ favorite alter ego–star of Meadows’ “This Is England” series, Stephen Graham, is a sad-sack of a man, Joseph. In Episode 1, Joseph reacts to his ex-wife’s emigration to Australia with her new significant other, David (Vauxhall Jermaine), by sinking back into alcoholism. Waking up hungover and filthy from the excesses of the previous night, the middle-aged Joseph has a snarky exchange with the ticket agent and extravagantly spends almost all of his money on a ticket back to Ireland, where he was born.
In Episode 2, Joseph arrives in Ireland, but he has no money and the only person he knows, his sister, Anna (Helen Behan), he hasn’t seen since he ran away from an orphanage at the precocious age of nine. Anna is married to Michael (Frank Laverty) and she has a respectable home with children. She’s at first frightened by the strange and dirty man who comes to her home and her husband is defensive, but she eventually recognizes Joseph as her brother. Her husband is a supervisor at a construction site and gives Joseph a job. There Joseph is warned about Craigy (Mark O’Halloran) whom Michael says was a flasher. Joseph asks if children were involved, but Michael assures him it was only an elderly couple. Craigy, however, knew Joseph from before, when he was a child at the orphanage.
In Episode 3, Joseph revisits the orphanage and has disturbing flashes of a horrific event. He attempts to cleanse his mind by drinking alcohol. Joseph isn’t the only drifter that Michael and Anna have taken in. Michael’s sister, Dinah (Niamh Algar) is also couch-surfing. When Joseph wakes up, Dinah and Joseph begin to get too cozy, only to be interrupted and admonished by Anna.
Dinah has returned to the area determined to find the son, Finn, that she gave up for adoption when she was 15. She arranges to meet with the woman who oversaw the adoption and hopefully, begins writing a letter to Finn.
Craigy has something on his mind, about something that happened in the orphanage, but Joseph isn’t ready to talk about it.
But Episode 4, finds Joseph and Dinah ready for some action. Although their troubled past suggests any liaison would be unwise, they find themselves hurriedly attempting to have sex, but this time, it isn’t Anna who interrupts them. Joseph has a panic attack. Thinking he might be having a heart attack, Joseph goes to the hospital. The next day, Joseph reveals to Anna that he remembers why he left the orphanage: He was raped by an older boy.
Joseph talks to Craigy about the rape, but Craigy reveals that he was also raped by the same boy and that he lured Joseph into the situation in order to avoid being raped again. Although Joseph forgives Craigy, he insists that Craigy reveal the name of their rapist and then learns where the now adult man lives. Seeking revenge, Joseph heads to confront the man.
Dinah is also heading toward a tragic confrontation. Meeting with the woman who handled her son’s adoption, she learns her son and his adoptive parents do not want to have any contact with her. In the past, the boy sent six letters over six months and included drawings. The social worker also rang Dinah’s mother, but her mother said Dinah burned the letters and drawings and had no interest in further contact. At first confused and then angry, Dinah denies knowing anything about the letters.
As Dinah confronts her mother, Joseph meets with his rapist, Damon. Damon is a lonely man, dying of cancer and without the slightest bit of remorse, even as he rests in a bed below a crucifix.
Under the direction of Meadows, the mini series doesn’t have the slickness of a better reality. Graham’s Joseph is an ordinary bloke who doesn’t dress well. Graham doesn’t have a strong jawline; he a bulky soft middle-aged guy who isn’t above average in attractiveness. Algar is more photogenic, but her Dinah is a defensive, angry woman who’s more than willing to throw a few punches. Everyone, even Behan’s Anna depends upon Laverty’s Michael for steady support.
Meadows uses the camera to convey emotion, so expect some shaky lens moments and blurry-eyed action on occasion. This is the only break from the textured portrayal of reality. “The Virtues” isn’t a pretty story and the dialogue is hard, direct and full of f-bombs. In the end, not everyone will embrace the virtues and the one person who seems to cling to them the most, feels them the least.
“The Virtues” is a thoughtful, precautionary tale about love and courage and, ultimately, survival. Originally released in the UK in May 2019, “The Virtues” made its North American premiere on 2 April 2020 and is currently streaming exclusively on Topic, the streaming service from First Look Media.