For devotees of Edward St Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels, the news that Benedict Cumberbatch was to star in a five-part dramatisation seemed like a mixed blessing.
Yes, St Aubyn’s extraordinary story of childhood trauma, resilience and acceptance was to get a new form of life. But surely nobody could really do justice to the visceral intensity, the precision and the sheer overwhelming emotion, of reading the five novels? Could they?
Well, yes, they could. Cumberbatch delivers a bravura performance as the heroin-addled hero, blighted by childhood abuse as he splurges his huge inheritance on drink, drugs and yet more drugs.
Episode one witnesses an extraordinarily powerful piece of acting from the Sherlock star, possibly the best of his life. And the trick seems to be the skill with which he manages to convey the interiority of Melrose’s personal hell alongside the explosive self-destructiveness of his outward behaviour. The books are, broadly speaking, very closed and intimate affairs, very often conveying just Patrick’s inner world. The skill of this adaption is not to lose that while showing all the epic self-destruction. The big, explosive stuff.
And in episode one it’s very big. A 48-hour bender while retrieving his father’s ashes in New York is not an easy watch, though. In fact, as Patrick careers about his hotel room and embarks on a disastrous date with a friend of his girlfriend in New York (Allison Williams’ Marianne) it’s hard not to cover your eyes at moments.
But the true cause of his agonies and despair is withheld very subtly – even if the monstrous father (played by Hugo Weaving of Lord of the Rings fame) who abused him when he was a young boy, is ever present in flashbacks. It’s a crucial part of the story that is unpeeled very slowly, with snatches of young Patrick’s life in the large house in France where the poor boy was forced to submit to the sexual desire of his overbearingly narcissistic, sexually incontinent Dad.
Much of Melrose’s story is mirrored in novelist Edward St Aubyn’s own experiences – the abuse, the urge to obliterate his mind, to anaesthetise a brain riven with pain. And it’s an interplay which works well on three levels – the author’s true story, the rendition in the books and now on screen.
What is also very alive in all three versions is the hero’s (and, by all accounts, St Aubyn’s) scabrous wit which Cumberbatch captures superbly. The withering put-downs, the fierce articulacy, the brazen unheeding willingness to cause pain, cutting at others as if to project his own agonies outward.
“I’m not an amateur” Patrick chuckles as he scores smack off some extremely nefarious-looking New York street dealers. You constantly expect him to have his throat cut (that nearly happens later on in the episode); but what also seems important is that you are rooting for him all the way.
Because, despite all his sophisticated airs, his money, his louche manner, his posh friends, his wit, here is a raging child screaming in pain. And we never lose sight of that. We see that with his his tantrum-like destruction of his hotel room, banging the panes and crying: “What’s the point of a f*****g window if you can’t jump out of it.”
And if you could bear to peer behind your fingers at his date with Marianne you’d realise that her final, furious rejection of his drug crazed advances – a “self-indulgent little shit” – has an undeniable point. Sympathy and an acknowledgement of what an horrific brat he can be is a trick that this adaptation pulls off very well.
But that is all merely a snatch of the emotional rollercoaster we travel in this opening episode – moving from a disgusting New York drug den one minute to his five-star hotel suite the next. It feels faintly unreal – but also horribly plausible and immediate at the same time. Part dream-like fantasy, part waking nightmare. This adaptation has it all.
David Nicholls’ script, moving from past to present, mirrors key parts of the narrative of the first book Never Mind which, even though it doesn’t form the basis of episode one, suffuses it. Because towering over everything, at the heart of everything is a sense of the father. The creeping tread of the abuser that young Patrick cowers from under the bed in one of many flashback scenes is terrifying. In fact you half expect he real life “corpse” (adult Patrick’s words) lying dead on the mortuary to snap into ghastly life.
And even with his body gone, Patrick takes around the ashes in a plastic bag. It is the voice Patrick can never get out of his head… and at this point in the story you feel never will. But at least the third book (and episode) is called Some Hope.
But of course in this world, that could be said with optimism, or as a sad, sarcastic sigh…
Patrick Melrose continues on Sky Atlantic on Sunday nights