Watching Showtime’s Patrick Melrose, the five-part miniseries adapted from the mostly autobiographical novels of Edward St. Aubyn, it soon becomes clear that Benedict Cumberbatch is delivering one of the best performances of his career. It’s also evident how increasingly rare it is, especially in this day and age of the blockbuster-ization of film and television, to be inclined to tune into something new — a series, miniseries, or feature film — initially just for the pleasure of watching an actor do some of his best work. It also feels increasingly rare to then discover your enjoyment of the program extends beyond the influence of the performer in question, to the project itself, and its structure, tone, and execution.
In the first episode ‘Bad News’ — which mostly covers the events of the first novel of the same name — the extent to which the production aims to anchor itself to Cumberbatch’s riveting, sometimes unhinged performance of an English aristocrat attempting to dull the edges of his painful, traumatic childhood with drugs and alcohol is made clear. ‘Bad News’ is a clever introduction to the title character, young man already afflicted with an all-consuming heroin addiction when he receives word his father had died in New York. Patrick must tear himself away from what is a presumably debauched day-to-day existence to jump the pond and collect the remains of his dear old dad, a task that is undertaken with no small amount of effort, due in part to his drug habit and recent decision to kick it to the curb.
Cumberbatch delivers a lively performance that teeters on manic and manages to be engaging, even when Patrick is engaged primarily with the voices in his head. The trip to the U.S. underlines the extravagances of the main character: the boozing, the drugs, the envelope stuffed with more cash than the GDP of a small country. Playing to preconceived notions of the idle rich and wealthy “bad boys,” for whom life is a never-ending party, works to the premiere’s advantage, as ‘Bad News’ slowly peels away the edges of Patrick’s personality to uncover and eventually confront (mostly in subsequent episodes, ‘Never Mind’ and ‘Some Hope’) the extent to which childhood traumas doled out by his abusive father shaped Patrick into the man his is at the start of the series.
The first hour does an excellent job of introducing the viewer to Patrick, of getting inside his head, and making it possible to like him, despite what, on the surface, are his many shortcomings. But it also seeks to explore the source of those faults as much as the intention behind them. There is a part of the story essentially about the abuse of power; the power granted to Patrick’s father, a surgeon and would-be composer, by his wealthy American mother. Hugo Weaving plays Patrick’s father David Melrose with a frightening combination of detachment and wickedness that mark his actions toward his son and wife, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), with a sadistic kind of cruelty worsened by his obvious enjoyment of it. Weaving and Leigh are the stars of the second episode, ‘Never Mind’, a dramatic deviation from the first, in that it remands Cumberbatch to the margins of the story for an hour as it explores Patrick’s childhood in the south of France, introducing the audience to a young Patrick, played by Sebastian Maltz. That Patrick Melrose can turn on a dime like that and leave its star off screen for the majority of an hour is an impressive flex by those behind the camera.
Written by David Nichols (Far From the Madding Crowd) and directed by Edward Berger (The Terror, Deutschland 83), each hour-long episode adapts a different novel in the series, and also swings wildly from savagely funny to devastatingly dramatic, as evidenced by the tonal shift from the first to the second, and again in the third, ‘Some Hope.’ From a structural standpoint, the slow unveiling of Patrick’s circumstances, the traumas that shaped him, and his eventual attempts to confront the past is incredibly well done. Berger displays a knack for near Danny Boyle-level formalism in ‘Bad News’, before infusing what is an otherwise painterly glimpse at an idyll existence with a startling sense of portent. The same is true of Cumberbatch’s take on Patrick; the ease with which he alters the tenor of his performance, to amplify the dramatic shifts in tone is remarkable.
Patrick Melrose is not always an easy watch, ‘Never Mind’, in particular, is as rough an hour of television as you’re likely to see all year. But the series doesn’t wallow in its misery; Nichols, Berger, and Cumberbatch, all find, in one form or another, a way to leaven even the heaviest of circumstances, and when those aren’t available, the series relies on the heft of the performances from Weaving and Leigh. The result is a story that is ultimately far more absorbing than it may appear, thanks to the devil-may-care advertisements or the poster of a besuited Cumberbatch immersed in a bathtub, with a cigarette in one hand and tumbler of whisky in another. Thankfully the series has more to offer than surface-level exploration of a "quirky alcoholic," but despite the dark recesses it sometimes explores, Patrick Melrose demonstrates just how much pleasure can be derived from simply sitting back and letting a truly great performance wash over you.
Patrick Melrose continues next Saturday with ‘Never Mind’ @9pm on Showtime.