Every once in a while we are gifted with a piece of work that unites critics in unequivocal consensus. Judging by its rare 100% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Shane Meadows’ The Virtues has achieved this feat with ease, inspiring some of the most unambiguously glowing praise modern entertainment has seen. Featuring original music by PJ Harvey, The Virtues is a no-holds-barred emotional ride starring Stephen Graham in a career-defining performance.
Graham plays Joseph, an Irishman living in England plagued by a painful upbringing. The story opens with Joseph being dealt a massive loss — his 9-year-old son is moving to Australia with his ex and her new husband. The sudden life change prompts Joseph to return to Ireland, where he meets forgotten family members and confronts the ghosts of his past, all the while trying to keep from self-destructing. A “tale of human fallibility and triumph,” The Virtues is at once a dark spiral of trauma and loss, a cathartic release that will leave you feeling hopeful, and an unlikely love story between two broken people.
The complex, multidimensional nature of the story and characters is one of the series’ biggest strengths, as it takes viewers through a full spectrum of emotions, never allowing an opportunity to look away. Arts and Faith writes: “Sometimes funny, often painful, honest, violent and unforgettable, The Virtues is one series that a brave person of faith should see.” It’s the sort of story that you want to follow to the deepest depths of despair just to see how you will be lifted back up. As Punch Drunk Critics describes, it’s “dark as hell and yet satisfying at the same time.”
When Joseph returns to Ireland, he meets his long estranged sister, Anna (Helen Behan), for the first time since their childhood days in Ireland’s care system. What She Said Radio calls their reunion scene “one of the great performance moments in recent TV.” When Joseph meets Anna’s sister-in-law, Dinah, played by a “tough as nails” Niamh Algar, he begins to develop feelings for her. But she’s not exactly well-adjusted herself, and the two together might be a combustible combination.
Though the series features superb acting from the entire cast, Graham is indisputably the standout star. “[Stephen Graham]’s performance is incredible, one that you will want everyone you know to also be able to witness for themselves,” writes The Game of Nerds. Other critics agree, calling his performance “bravura,” “top-notch,” “pitch-perfect,” and “masterful.”
Viewers may have seen Graham in other standout roles, including Meadows’ indie hit “This Is England,” in which he played a skinhead boiling over with hate to a chillingly accurate degree. Graham played another tough guy — perhaps the tough guy — as Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire,” and recently appeared in Martin Scorsese’s latest, “The Irishman,” as the brash and entertaining Tony Pro. But Graham may have popped up on your radar two decades ago — he was Jason Stahtam’s sidekick, Tommy, in Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch.”
Equally deserving of applause is director and writer Meadows, who Jump Cut Online calls “one of our foremost writers who is documenting contemporary working-class British life and should be as highly regarded as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.” Meadows’ storytelling, character development, and “stylish, visually arresting” direction create a perfect storm of human emotion. “Meadows has perfectly calibrated every emotional beat,” writes Sonic Cinema. The Playlist not only calls The Virtues “both the harshest and most tender enterprise [Meadows] has undertaken to date,” but also writes, “This may be the best work of his career.” After finishing The Virtues, check out “This Is England” and “Somers Town” — both works highlight Meadows’ distinct talent in amplifying small slices of British life with powerful impact.
Originally a four-part series that aired on the UK’s Channel 4 in 2019, The Virtues is streaming exclusively on Topic in the US and Canada. Watch for yourself to see what the critics are raving about — you’ll quickly realize that none of their praise is overstated.
And if you like “The Virtues,” here are some other titles on Topic that you might like: