Few writer/directors can conjure up the feel of a place, its essence as well as its aesthetic, as well as Shane Meadows. Over the twenty-odd years he has been working, we’ve been given unrelenting explorations of the tribal natures of families, the wayward experiences of youth under pressure and we’ve looked deep into the hearts of the passionate overlooked. He frames his home country with an unblinking eye, as far from someone like Woody Allen’s elevated view of New York as is possible, but this is exactly why his work is so compelling. When he says This is England, we believe him.
Along with his nine feature films, Meadows has worked in music videos and television, continuing the beloved story of Shaun, Woody, Lol and Trev with three This is England series. Each time the magic and the madness of this world came alive and rumours persist about another chapter. In the meantime Meadows has just completed work on The Virtues, a four-part series written by regular collaborator Jack Thorne which sees a DVD release on Monday, the 12th of August.
Telling the story of Joseph (played with nerve-shredding intensity and visceral vulnerability by another regular Meadows pick – Stephen Graham), whose life falls apart after his wife and son leave him for a new life in Australia. In the bleak void left in their wake, Joseph travels to Ireland to reunite with his estranged sister. It is here that a terrible incident in his past is reawakened in him, and here that Meadows’ unflinching and raw power comes to the fore. Much of what makes Meadows’ work so vital is the unraveling of bravado, the peep behind the curtain of machismo; masculinity in all its fragile fragments is placed under the microscope with devastating effect.
Speaking with The Guardian in May of this year, Meadows talks candidly about his own experiences which lead to The Virtues. It is a hard read, but a necessary one. It shows off his candour and engaging personality, but points to a far more courageous soul beneath. Many of Meadows’ films and TV works have an element of autobiography, with This is England being a prime example. The Virtues is no different though it is heart-breaking and impressive in equal measure that the director was able to fuel his latest endeavour with such a personal journey. There are moments of discovery and relative recovery in the series that are so perfectly realised, and with such aching honesty, that it touches the very heart of the fear that lies within us all. It’s an exceptional piece of work, and not the sort we often see celebrated.
No mention of Meadows goes very far without his actors, and in this instance Stephen Graham. Meadows, as a lifelong Scorsese fan, will no doubt be looking forward to seeing Graham in his forthcoming cast-of-all-time film The Irishman. With an unforgettable performance in the latest series of Line of Duty gave newcomers a look at his stock in trade passion and angst, however his work with Meadows brings out the best in him. The Virutes needs an actor of Stephen Graham’s calibre to work. There are depths here that need a steady hand and a tight grip.
Graham’s portrayal of Joseph had me in mind of Bob Hoskins, who Meadows worked with on his early 1997 film TwentyFourSeven. There is a charisma and confidence, but also a claustrophobic element, as if he is sometimes keeping too much under his skin. Graham spoke recently about this feeling on set, and it becomes clear how important the relationship between the two is. Graham says about dealing with the tough subjects, “We’re just telling the story, it’s his journey throughout the story. I don’t see it as being pressure because I have the utmost faith and trust in Shane.” Speaking with The Big Issue the respect and love between the two is clear.
“We all have an obligation to play it with integrity and honesty and as much truth as we can,” says the actor, whose eyes brim with tears during our interview. “It is 100 per cent care. It is a very tender situation. Shane is laying himself bare there.”
In another interview with The Guardian, this one in 2007 just as This is England was about enter cinemas, Meadows noted, “The things affecting me now as a filmmaker are deeper and darker,…but I know I can find beauty there.” Twelves years later he has created something beautiful with The Virtues, but it is a fierce dive into the depths of the soul.
The Virtues is out now on DVD.