Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Four years removed from his award-worthy turn as Alan Turing in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, and finally, Benedict Cumberbatch has made the laborious journey back to meaningful acting. With three MCU appearances during the interim, Cumberbatch, who has said that his only two bucket list roles are Hamlet and Patrick Melrose, having fulfilled the former in 2015, gives perhaps his strongest performance to date as the titular drug addict.
Written by David Nicholls (Starter for 10), with Edward Berger (The Terror) at the helm, Showtime and Sky Atlantic’s five-part miniseries, Patrick Melrose, adapted from the semi-autobiographical novels penned by Edward St. Aubyn, is a harrowing, if not familiar diamorphine-driven drama elevated through distressingly believable thespianism.
Each chapter of Patrick Melrose is formed around a single entry in Aubyn’s roman à clef anthology, comprised of Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last. The first episode, “Bad News,” opens on an intoxicated Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch), blood trickling down the track marks on his forearm, answering a spasmodic trans-Atlantic call, it being 1982, informing him that his father, David Melrose (Hugo Weaving), a detestable, abusive megalomaniac, has passed away.
Over the subsequent hour, Patrick, having flown to Manhattan, inefficaciously battles old acquaintances and withdrawal by way of scathing internal discourse and numerous futile attempts at retribution against his father’s ashes. Admittedly, the whole thing distinctly recalls Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, with Cumberbatch barely conscious for the episode’s entirety, splayed and contorted in all manner of disjointed twists and knots. Although, by premiere’s end, Patrick, having acknowledged defeat, uncontrollably weeps in an airport terminal, efficiently earning viewer sympathy – which one cannot say about Jordan Belfort.
In episode two, “Never Mind,” we travel back in time to Melrose manor in Lacoste, France, during the summer of 1967. It’s against this scenic European countryside where we’re treated to the full extent of David Melrose’s vaingloriousness and maltreatment. Weaving, who’s never tackled a character so heinous, is undeniably brilliant. The sheer arrogance and repulsiveness this man exudes, it’s almost tangible. Or at least, palpable enough to make you physically ill.
Whether he’s forcing his wife Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to “get down on all fours” and consume every fig that has fallen from the tree, or inscrutably manhandling a young Patrick, “Never Mind” is an hour of television that, for better or worse, provides Weaving a transfixing platform to showcase his talents. That being said, the real star of episode two is director Edward Berger, whose visual arrangement somehow engineers repugnance while remaining watchable. If “Bad News” introduces the paraphernalia kit, the second instalment of Patrick Melrose is where we shoot up and get hooked.
On to “Some Hope,” the lacerating third episode of Showtime’s drama sees Patrick, at Nicholas’ (Pip Torrens) urging, forced to make an appearance at his first social gathering since getting clean, an event that’s so swanky, Princess Margaret (Harriet Walter) is in attendance. The hoity-toity bitch’s antics notwithstanding, with the help of Johnny (Prasanna Puwanarajah), an old friend who, like Melrose, is giving sobriety a go of it, Patrick manages to survive the party, steering clear of cocktails and cocaine and even escaping with a newfound openness to his hellish past and a distaste for privilege.
Fortunately, much of the aristocratic allegory in Patrick Melrose, i.e. Marxism, prerogative, and alike, is, by and large, numbed to the nuclear trigger – Patrick/Aubyn’s childhood trauma, which had him going through $5,000 worth of hard drugs and alcohol a week as an adult. This ultimately resulted in nothing more than raw, biting loneliness, aided by neither affluence nor status, something unmistakably apparent for the better part of three episodes.
Under the guidance of Cumberbatch, who serves as executive producer, Nicholls’ translation is a surprisingly positive endeavour, combating the inherent bleakness and social commentary of Aubyn’s stern prose with black comedy and an unceasing desire to better one’s self. However, having overcome his self-destructive nature by episode three, Patrick has seemingly turned his attention to the injustices of haut monde.
Undeniably, Aubyn’s dissection of the upper crust is an integral element of his five-part anthology, howbeit, there’s just too much to unpack in a mere handful of hours – simply put. I can’t speak as to what happens beyond “Some Hope,” as the final two episodes were withheld, but I sincerely hope this stark drama stays the course and doesn’t veer off in too many directions. There’s a story to be told here, beginning and ending with Patrick Melrose.