Not to sound overdramatic, but the entire success of five-part miniseries Patrick Melrose rests on the shoulders of the actor who plays him – get the character even slightly wrong and the whole thing goes off the rails. Melrose must be funny and troubled and awful and sympathetic all at the same time, with exactly the right dose of nuance.
That’s why it’s very good news that the star of the show is Benedict Cumberbatch.
Adapted from the series of five semi-autobiographical novels by Edward St Aubyn, the Sky Atlantic drama introduces us to Patrick Melrose, a heroin addict with unlimited funds and an equally unlimited supply of childhood trauma. Cumberbatch plays St Aubyn’s character (he even looks a bit like the author!) and gives one of his best performances to date.
The first episode is actually adapted from the second book in the series (Bad News), presumably because the first book (Never Mind) begins the story in Patrick’s childhood – and even an actor as accomplished as Cumberbatch cannot convincingly play an eight-year-old kid. So the tale of Young Patrick (played with deep sadness by Sebastian Maltz) must wait to be told until episode two, while Cumberbatch makes his debut as an adult Melrose in the opening episode.
In this first instalment, our protagonist travels from London to New York to collect the ashes of the aristocratic father who abused him and made his childhood a hellish nightmare. But despite Melrose’s decision to quit heroin and turn over a new leaf in the post-dad era, this trip soon turns into a MASSIVE binge as our protagonist gulps down martinis and whiskies and tears through 1980s New York in search of quaaludes, speed, cocaine, and his beloved heroin. His childhood demons follow close behind.
As the trauma-afflicted, drug-addicted Melrose there is much of the actor’s trademark acting style on display: fiercely intelligent, highly-strung, crisply spoken, fast-talking, wry, caustic, haughty and imperious.
Like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and his Alan Turing, he is somehow separate from the world, standing apart and examining it with a hint (or more than a hint) of disdain.
But more than ever, Cumberbatch is able to shed that English reserve and let loose, both physically and emotionally – and what a performance he gives. Cumberbatch’s face may be well-known but he can still do incredibly surprising things with it; witness Melrose melting like a waxy candle as his inner voice slurs and his face droops, or watch him wide-eyed and drenched in sweat as his heart threatens to beat itself out of his body. Running alongside all of this is his morbid humour, expressed through witty one-liners and a manic internal monologue.
For this role you need someone who can persuade the audience to connect with a heroin-addicted heavy-drinking ex-Oxford posh boy who spends money thoughtlessly and literally bathes in whisky; a snob who is rude to waiters and thinks nothing of trashing his fancy five-star hotel suite. That is a hard ask. Melrose is not exactly a character everybody can identify with.
So you can see why they turned to Cumberbatch, who has trod that fine line between likeable and unlikeable with his version of Sherlock Holmes, making him slightly obnoxious but ultimately endearing. And it’s safe casting in that we know this actor can do the posh/oddball combo: he is, after all, a boarding school graduate and a former pupil of Harrow School.
But this role requires so much more than that, because Melrose is so much wilder. Cumberbatch has stepped up with his performance, playing Melrose with a great deal of humour and plunging head-first into his sadness in a way that keeps us fully engaged.
As flashbacks hint at what his cruel father David Melrose (Hugo Weaving) did to him all those years ago at the family mansion in the South of France, his alienating and irritating behaviour in the present becomes touched with tragedy; at one moment he candidly admits that there is something of his father’s ugliness in him, something which he cannot escape. Melrose may have privileges but Cumberbatch is able to tap into his trauma and pain.
Cumberbatch once declared that his two bucket-list roles were Patrick Melrose and Hamlet. Having since played Hamlet, being cast as Patrick Melrose must have been a dream-come-true for the actor. But it’s more than just good news for Cumberbatch: it’s good news for us as viewers, too.
Patrick Melrose will launch on Sky Atlantic on Sunday 13th May, with new episodes airing weekly