TV review: The Virtues, Channel 4

Tough viewing as Shane Meadows takes us into a tormented past

For his latest TV drama, acclaimed Midlands director Shane Meadows wanted the pacing to be stately and dialogue to be minimalist. In tandem with co-writer Jack Thorne, he has achieved exactly that, with The Virtues' documentary-style filmmaking as naturalistic as they come; Meadows' ultimate intention to create something distinctly more 'European' is achieved with knobs on.

If you had a script in your hands, scanning the dialogue which Meadows and Thorne have put into their actors' mouths, you might be forgiven for almost nodding off at the banality of it all: one elongated sequence features four characters sitting round a dinner table offering a series of mundane platitudes about the food being served up. Yet, somehow the overall effect is hugely suspenseful, with acres of unsaid words and unspoken histories weighing heavily over the action. More overtly anxiety-inducing is a lengthy pub scene which you feel will inevitably go awry by chucking-out time.

With economical dialogue and fly-on-the-wall camera work, much responsibility lies on the actors' shoulders; thankfully they are all very much up to the task. As the tormented Joseph, Stephen Graham delivers a possibly career-best performance in an already glittering acting CV. A man teetering on the brink from the off, his former partner is about to take their son halfway across the world for a new life, while the terrors of a childhood in care haunts Joseph's every step leading him to take a trip into his troubled past.

Kudos also to Helen Bevan and Mark O'Halloran as individuals from Joseph's younger days who loom large in his new life. And PJ Harvey has only gone and written a score which underpins the drama and helps drag the audience kicking and screaming towards material and into scenes that make for very uncomfortable but essential viewing.

Episodes watched: 1 & 2 of 4

The Virtues starts on Channel 4, Wednesday 15 May, 9pm

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