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With 'Patrick Melrose,' Benedict Cumberbatch Shines
May 12, 2018  | By David Hinckley

A show starring Benedict Cumberbatch may not constitute a rarity these days, but Patrick Melrose provides an industrial-strength dose of the video world’s most wanted man.

Cumberbatch plays the title character in Patrick Melrose, a five-part Showtime series launching Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

Melrose is the mildly dramatized alter ego of Edward St Aubyn, whose wealthy aristocratic British childhood morphed into a nightmare when he turned 5 and his father began sexually abusing him.

With a self-absorbed mother who looked the other way, perhaps deliberately and perhaps not, Melrose could not break free until he was a teenager, at which point he fled into heroin, other drugs and monstrously anti-social behavior for which he was rarely called to account because of that aforementioned wealth.

At one point he destroys his suite in an elegant hotel, an act of blind fury whose cost, of no concern to him, would probably have supported a family of four for several years.

Yet at the same time, even while he endangers his own life and claims he yearns to end it, Melrose never loses his rapier wit and an odd, detached third-person ability to see his tortured actions for what they are.

St Aubyn wrote five Melrose books, focusing on five snapshots that illustrate the path from his earliest, lowest depths to what seems on the surface a respectable life. He has become a successful writer, has a family and has made his peace with the society and the social class he earlier seemed to be only disgracing.

Each episode of Patrick Melrose condenses one of the books into an hour-long drama, which Cumberbatch and writer David Nicholls have said was the hardest part of the project.

As fans of St Aubyn’s vivid writing, they have attempted to keep as much of that prose as possible in the script. That means eliminating a number of subplots and some characters, which telescopes the original story in a number of places.

Happily, Cumberbatch’s performance still conveys the essence of Melrose. When we meet him, he’s walking every possible tightrope with no guarantee he will reach the other platform, and Cumberbatch holds nothing back in making it clear this guy is all-in for self-destruction.  

He has flown to New York to retrieve his father’s ashes, which he does between desperate attempts to score drugs and postpone yet another round of withdrawal. In the middle of all this, he somehow manages to arrange dinner with the woman he has always adored, Marianne (Allison Williams). He ends up bolting in a drugged frenzy before recovering enough to ask her why she’s leaving.

Hmmmm. Good question.

Equally impressive as a piece of acting, Cumberbatch can slide without a blink into the other side of Melrose, which is the sharp, quick casual wit we associate with upper-class Brits like, say, Noel Coward characters. At another point, now made ravenously hungry by the drugs, Melrose goes to a new restaurant and orders what seems like half the menu.

When the waiter asks if someone will be joining him, he replies, “God, I hope not.”

While Patrick Melrose does have other actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh as Patrick’s mother and Hugo Weaving as his father, Patrick dominates the screen the way Muhammad Ali used to dominate heavyweight boxing.

Cumberbatch accepts that challenge and meets it. Even when Sebastian Maltz becomes the young Patrick in the frequent and grim flashback scenes, Cumberbatch’s retro-terror continues to resonate.

TV and movie dramas return endlessly to the theme of corrosive childhoods and their effect on the adults who emerges from them. Patrick Melrose walks familiar turf.

What sets it apart is the intensity of the ride and the almost startling amount of humor that first St Aubyn and now the TV adaptation injects. It makes us want Patrick to survive, maybe before he wants that for himself.

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