“You lied to me, you hurt me,” wails young Patrick Melrose to his father David (played by Hugo Weaving). The older man had just played what seemed a jolly game of trust with his son – holding him up and clutching his ears with the boy supporting his own weight.
But the father’s trust test goes awry – leaving him hanging by his ears and suffering excruciating pain. That, says the father, was a lesson. He must learn to think for himself. And things that happen to him now will build his character.
But the lessons were learned way back in boyhood: David Melrose was a monster, a self-regarding bully and sexual abuser who is the pole star when we think of why the boy became the self-destructive man.
It’s a hard watch but it pays off when, as with the book (Never Mind, the first in the Edward St Aubyn series on which it’s based), we witness a drawn-out day in the grand house in the south of France in 1967.
The young boy’s boredom mingled with sharp moments of terror are evoked with skill and precision, a child’s eye view of savagery and neglect that is intensely powerful.
The long silent scenes where he tests the strength of the wooden lid of the well in the spacious garden/vineyard of his parent’s chateau were exquisitely done. Even without saying anything we could sense poor young Patrick’s desperation that it would give way. The poor thing had a death wish even then.
It’s helped by some brilliant cinematography (James Friend) and direction (Edward Berger) – sumptuous visual images of squashed figs, the scorched landscape, the constant hum of cicadas creating a sensual and stifling palette.
And even when we venture inside, the cool does not provide a haven – the ghastly dinner party hosted by David with his vile schoolfriend (Pip Torrens’ Nicholas) and his coke-addled young girlfriend (Bridget Watson Scott played by Holliday Grainger) pile on the horror and despair, the sense of cruelty, snobbishness and monumental damage.
Patrick’s drunk and pill-addled mother Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) clearly wants to love her son but can do little for him. She too is a victim – early on we learn that when she complained about the wasted figs in the grounds of their chateau, her husband made her grovel on all fours and eat them all up. We then see her desperate to give her fortune to charities like Save the Children – a grim irony because, of course, there is one child she could not save.
It’s an hour of television that radiates terror – and not just Patrick’s. Even the family maid literally shakes in David’s presence – he keeps her lingering with a tray of crockery, sadistically enjoying the effect he has on everyone. His sexual violation of his son (not seen thankfully, but the closed door tells a horrible story) may be outrageous. But even the way he fills the house with beautiful piano music (David was a promising but failed composer) exudes horrifying menace.
The only ray of compassion comes in the form of Anne (Indira Varma), an old friend of fellow American Eleanor and a sane voice who senses Patrick’s predicament, but is powerless to do anything but storm off with her husband Sir Victor Eisen (James Fleet) when David becomes especially obnoxious. She’s a kindly soul but an ineffectual one.
Even Bridget’s attempt at a midnight flight comes to nothing – her old friend whom she called in the night never turns up to take her away from this hellhole.
“It’s not as easy as you think,” cries a slurring Eleanor, watching her from her car, smoking herself sick and drinking herself to oblivion. How right she is.