Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Is Peerless in ‘Patrick Melrose’

Posted May 10, 2018 5:52 p.m. EDT

Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels — published beginning in 1992 and collected, to lavish praise, in 2012 — owe their popularity to the way they cross genres to satisfy two distinct cravings.

St. Aubyn does a reasonably good rendition of a classic style of British social satire, withering and mock-grotesque, for those who pine for the early works of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. (As they should.)

But he puts it in service of a more contemporary form, the recovery story, tracing Patrick’s life from horrific abuse as a child to unbridled addiction (the second novel, “Bad News,” is a straight-up junkie phantasmagoria) to tenuously sober, emotionally fragile adulthood. Neither side of the equation would necessarily be notable on its own, but the combination clicks.

“Patrick Melrose,” a Showtime miniseries (beginning Sunday) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, isn’t really able to do either side justice. Part of that is compression: Five hours may seem like plenty of time to tell one life’s story, but it means that each novel is squished into just an hour of screen time.

Based on the three episodes Showtime made available, that wasn’t enough to approximate the texture of St. Aubyn’s work — the way pathos, for better or worse, peeks through the cracks of his comic-splenetic detachment. There’s no way of knowing what the writer, David Nicholls, and director, Edward Berger, would have done with more space. But as it is, it feels as if they’re scrambling just to work in all their favorite bits from the books.

What they haven’t found time for, or didn’t know how to achieve, is a cinematic equivalent for St. Aubyn’s framing consciousness, the way Patrick and the other characters — the family members and friends who inhabit his desiccated upper-class milieu — pick over their own lives, fighting a battle of wits with no winners.

Instead they seem to have focused on getting across the story, whose shattering elements don’t prevent it from feeling too familiar, a tale whose various parts we’ve heard before. Nicholls flips the order of the first two books, beginning with “Bad News,” in which the 22-year-old Patrick flies to New York to retrieve his father’s ashes and goes on an epic cocaine-and-heroin bender, and following with “Never Mind,” the first novel, set during a day at the Melrose’s home in southern France in Patrick’s childhood.

The change disrupts the chronology but makes for a more unified, recovery-focused narrative, hitting us up front with Patrick at his most damaged. (And, of course, starting with Cumberbatch in the foreground rather than Sebastian Maltz, who plays Patrick as a child.)

Other decisions also seem aimed at providing a coherent narrative experience at all costs. Nicholls deals with the books’ reliance on interior monologue and description by putting snippets of St. Aubyn’s prose into the characters’ mouths as conventional dialogue, sometimes to salvage an acerbic bon mot but often just to get in background information.

And some choices feel as if they were made with concern for sensibilities that St. Aubyn did not have to consider. Female characters behave with more assertiveness and conviction on screen than they did in the books. Most noticeably, the precipitating trauma in Patrick’s life, perpetrated by his father, is presented quite differently. In the novels it takes you by surprise, happening in an almost offhand (but utterly frank) way that renders it all the more horrible. In the series, triggering is avoided — the brutality is fully, morbidly foreshadowed (and takes place literally behind a closed door).

Berger (“Deutschland ‘83”) and his cinematographer, James Friend, package all this in a glossy, fluid manner that makes the bare bones of Patrick’s story entertaining, if not terribly compelling. “Patrick Melrose” might be better viewing if you haven’t read the books and aren’t aware of what you’re missing.

And of course there’s the consolation of watching Cumberbatch exercise his peerless technique. Patrick Melrose isn’t much of a challenge for an actor who’s brilliantly portrayed real eccentrics like Julian Assange and Alan Turing, but it’s fun to watch Cumberbatch riffing through the voices in Patrick’s head during his cocaine binges in “Bad News” (more fun than it was to read).

A few casting decisions don’t quite work (Jennifer Jason Leigh as Patrick’s mother, Indira Varma as an American friend of his parents), but Cumberbatch gets good support from Hugo Weaving as Patrick’s monstrous father, Pip Torrens as a somewhat less ghastly family friend and Jessica Raine as an old flame.

Seen through their characters’ eyes, “Patrick Melrose” commits a basic sin: It errs on the side of obviousness. It’s not bad, just a little vulgar, don’t you see?


Additional Information:

‘Patrick Melrose’

Saturdays on Showtime