September 11, 2018


Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the imperfect Patrick Melrose

By Craig Mathieson
Image from ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose

The actor brings together his trademark raffishness and sardonic superiority in this searing miniseries

At the beginning of Patrick Melrose (Foxtel BBC First), the compelling television adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s acclaimed series of semi-autobiographical novels, it is 1982 and the titular young protagonist, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, answers the telephone to learn that his father has died. While speaking with the disciplined decorum that is the bedrock of England’s upper classes, Patrick slowly sinks to his knees, not so much shocked as relieved that, as we will learn, his childhood abuser is no more.

This exchange – with its combination of hidebound elitism and sudden shock – is emblematic of a series that repeatedly turns, with serrated sarcasm and heart-rending observation, on the cruel necessity of duality. It is a drama where what people know of the past and what they will speak of it are contradictory, or where hopeful intentions linger until the damning outcome. By the final episode, set in 2005, the middle-aged Patrick will speak fondly of his last addiction being irony: the holding of two opposing meanings.

The irony in Patrick Melrose is searing, and the show itself is bleak. In the second episode, set at the Melrose family’s house at Lacoste, in the south-east of France, during the summer of 1967, eight-year-old Patrick (played by Sebastian Maltz) is raped by his father, David (Hugo Weaving), for the first time. The horrible transgression will recur for several years. Patrick Melrose cannot show what St Aubyn writes about in detail, instead using chilling suggestion. “Take your trousers down,” David coldly instructs his son, as the latter shuts the door to the former’s room one sun-drenched afternoon, and the camera silently pulls back to regard what will forever be the scene of a crime. Despite its necessarily suggestive quality, the show effectively summons and sustains the trauma that results.

Addiction is Patrick’s coping mechanism, beginning with heroin and many sundry pills as a young man, before alcohol and prescription drugs come to the fore in latter decades. Everything Patrick puts into his body is an attempt to negate the shattering memories of his childhood, and in novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls’s adaptation, trauma is a constant presence. It never goes away, and will only abate so that circumstances can allow it to rear up at a crucial moment and deepen its hold. It has, like so many of the circle the Melroses inhabit, impeccable timing.

Over five instalments the narrative moves from the droll excess of Patrick’s 20s, set over a surrealist-tinged lost weekend in New York where he comes to retrieve his father’s ashes in the first episode, through the bitter acceptance of his 30s and eventually his struggle in his 40s to just acknowledge – not rise above – his psychological scarring. “Eject,” Patrick mutters to himself when a family friend tries to raise the subject of his childhood difficulties, and 20 years later he’s only made it as far as condemning the “noose of loathing” he wears for his mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a wealthy American dilettante whom Patrick blames for not protecting him.

Patrick’s parents may be the ultimate manifestation of Philip Larkin’s now celebrated stanza about how your mum and dad “fuck you up”, because it’s clear that, unlike Larkin’s disclaimer, they definitely did mean to. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives Eleanor a brittle, selfish indolence – her excuses to Patrick about her inattention barely register – while Hugo Weaving manifests a monster so complete that his scenes, mostly contained in the second episode, could be accurately described as a work of horror. “He didn’t beat me, exactly …” admits a polite but fearful dinner guest who went to Eton with David, but Patrick’s father is long past such restraint. He savours the sting of each sentence delivered in his stentorian voice; he’s a gifted pianist who abandoned his passion in the name of convention and who tucks in his wounded, terrified son at bedtime and then warns him that if he utters a word about that day’s events he will, in a foreshadowing of the duality to come, “snap you in two”.

Patrick Melrose is brutal, but it’s also often mordantly funny. “I hate bereavement,” notes Julia (Jessica Raine), Patrick’s intermittent girlfriend and mistress, following a funeral. “It plays havoc with your eye shadow.” David’s friend and society mainstay, Nicholas Pratt (Pip Torrens), delivers commentary so pompously appalling that it’s amusing. The series isn’t a condemnation of the upper class, because that would require a certain distance, but it strafes the elite with withering accuracy. The third episode, set mainly at a Tatler magazine-ready aristocrat’s birthday party in 1990 where the acerbic guest of honour, Princess Margaret (Harriet Walter), thoroughly humiliates the French ambassador to Pratt’s patriotic delight, is a farcical symphony that makes the sober Patrick reconsider his bearings.

As a young man, Patrick moves in and out of the frame, as if his high gives him the ultimate transit papers, but with each ensuing episode focusing on the adult Patrick, the camera increasingly fixes him in troubled place. Benedict Cumberbatch has said that his two bucket-list roles were Hamlet (which he played in 2015) and Patrick Melrose, and he’s deeply suited to the latter, building on the raffish arrogance of his Sherlock Holmes and the sardonic superiority of his Marvel superhero, Doctor Strange. The bitterness seeps from Cumberbatch’s distress and his retorts have a self-lacerating clarification. He makes Patrick’s anger his definitive trait, so that sympathy can never settle in.

When Patrick dismisses a 12-step program for addicts because of “the slogans, the fatuous jargon”, there is an echo of David’s sneering commentary, and the reach of the trauma here is so great that Patrick, even as he senses it happening, exhibits some of his father’s lesser failings. In the fourth episode, Patrick brings his family back to Lacoste in 2003, where the ageing, ailing Eleanor has a few final indignations for him. His eldest son, Robert (Marcus Smith), looks at him in a way that is heartbreaking. “I loathe the poison that is dripping down from generation to generation,” Patrick tells his wife, Mary (Anna Madeley), but he doesn’t know how to put an end to it.

That refusal to allow for a cathartic solution is what makes Patrick Melrose both so demanding and ultimately so rewarding. This concise, skilfully made show never demeans Patrick’s burden with an easy resolution; at times his best instincts surface belatedly as a survival mechanism, at others he spurns hopeful opportunities. Counter to what you might expect, though, Patrick’s life is not presented as a hideous obstacle course that has the release of a finish line, and in the end there’s just the barest hint that eventually if you keep moving forward, the trauma can be left behind you. Now that is a discipline worth admiring.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


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