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Tuesday 22 October 2019

Stephen Graham in The Virtues - is this the best acting we've ever seen?

British actor has raised naturalism to a new level in Shane Meadows' new Channel 4 series, says Pat Stacey

Stephen Graham and Shea Michael Shaw in The Virtues, Channel 4
Stephen Graham and Shea Michael Shaw in The Virtues, Channel 4

Pat Stacey

If Stephen Graham had appeared in nothing this year except BBC1’s Line of Duty, he’d still be a red-hot favourite to pick up an award at next year’s BAFTAs.

It’s easy to visualise any number of gifted actors playing conflicted and compromised undercover cop John Corbett. It’s a lot harder, however, to imagine anyone making as brilliant a job of it as Graham.

Being the guest lead in Jed Mercurio’s police corruption drama has evolved into one of the plummest roles on TV. Over the course of Line of Duty’s five seasons, it has given actors including Lennie James, Keeley Hawes and Thandie Newton wonderful opportunities to shine.

But Graham, cycling through a complex range of feelings — anger, fear, confusion, vulnerability, near-suicidal despair — arguably outshone all of his predecessors.

Stephen Graham in Line Of Duty (Aiden Monaghan/World Productions/BBC/PA)
Stephen Graham in Line Of Duty (Aiden Monaghan/World Productions/BBC/PA)

It was a terrific performance, locating the kind of depth and nuance in the character that only the very finest screen actors are capable of tapping into.

I honestly didn’t believe we’d see a better piece of acting from a male star in 2019. I was wrong, and the actor who’s proved me wrong is Stephen Graham himself.

Graham’s extraordinary performance in Shane Meadows’ blistering four-parter The Virtues on Channel 4 surpasses his work in Line of Duty and possibly anything else he’s done up to now.

This is saying something about a hugely versatile actor whose enviable CV includes roles in This Is England and its TV follow-ups (all written and directed by Meadows); Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and the upcoming The Irishman; Boardwalk Empire (as a terrifying Al Capone); Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy; The Damned United (playing Billy Bremner); the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; and the just-released Elton John biopic Rocketman (as record producer Gus Dudgeon).

Intense: Stephen Graham, who shone in the last season of Line of Duty, in The Virtues
Intense: Stephen Graham, who shone in the last season of Line of Duty, in The Virtues

In The Virtues, Graham plays the damaged Joseph, who was born in Ireland but moved to Liverpool. He’s a recovering alcoholic, clinging to sobriety by his fingernails for the sake of his young son (Shea Michael Shaw), who he adores.

When his ex-wife and her partner take the boy to begin a new life in Australia, Joseph, whose just about kept it together through an unbearably sad farewell meal with the three of them, falls to pieces.

Stephen Graham in The Virtues, BBC
Stephen Graham in The Virtues, BBC

During a single night of binge-drinking (the most horribly realistic depiction of alcoholic collapse ever put on screen), repressed memories of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child break through the surface.

Having woken up the following morning covered in vomit and piss, Joseph cleans himself up and takes the ferry to Ireland to confront the ghosts of his past and reunite with his sister Anna (Helen Behan), who hasn’t heard from him in years and had assumed he was dead.

To say The Virtues – the first work that Meadows, who directed and co-wrote it (with Jack Thorne), has done since confronting his own repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse – is the most realistic drama to come along in decades is like saying grass is green.

There’s not a single false note in it. Every scene, every line of dialogue, every camera shot (which Meadows often holds longer than many directors would dare) has the ring of absolute truth.

Saying it resembles a documentary doesn’t quite do it justice. It goes beyond that, dissolving the wall between the actors on screen and the viewers at home.

Two scenes in particular – when Joseph and his son are spending their last, tender moments together, and when Joseph and Anna are having their first conversation since they were separated as children – feel so authentic, so intimate, it’s like eavesdropping on real lives.

Anchoring it all is Graham, who raises naturalistic acting to a whole new level.

He’s simply stunning. That BAFTA  next year no longer looks like a strong possibility. It looks like a certainty.

Episode 3 of The Virtues is on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 9pm.  Watch the first two episodes on catch up.

Read more: The Virtues review: 'I think we might be looking at one of the best dramas of the year'

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