(Directed by Edward Berger) (Showtime, 2018)
Patrick Melrose is a poor little rich boy with issues. Why does he abuse substances so spectacularly? Why such a jaundiced eye towards Mummy and Daddy? Why the failed relationships, the ferocious anger, the lurch at self-destruction?
Well, we do find out. Edward St. Aubyn’s five novel-trajectory of Patrick’s story is compressed into 5 hour-long episodes, starting with a catastrophic journey to New York to collect father’s corpse and get on the junk. Benedict Cumberbatch has a lovely time as Patrick: he’s flip, witty, manic, and sad. As we whizz, so very briskly, through his redemptive journey, the whole piece seems agreeably patchy and incomplete, like the story of a valued but doomed friend who you see mainly from afar and up-close only now and then.
The lives of the leisured and treasured upper class twits, juxtaposed with Patrick’s alternate cohort of down-and-outs, are jumbled in a myriad vivid scenes. Most of the cast and settings are just backdrop, however: marriages and affairs come and go; people die or disappear – there is little sense that we are delving substantially into anything apart from the interior life of one abusive nuclear family. As to that, the key figures in the series are Patrick and his parents. The Varnished Culture thought Jennifer Jason Leigh was just right as Eleanor Melrose, the wealthy but worthless soak of an American, who finances and fears her husband, the latter being qualified as a doctor, talented as a musician, but entirely occupied as a wastrel. Mum is the key role in this Freudian saga, and her wretched decline, while unlikely to be to everyone’s taste, is beautifully done.
Which brings us to Hugo Weaving as David Melrose. We’ve seldom seen a more satisfying portrayal of a truly, madly, deeply, wicked man. In the second episode, when we get to meet David in all his odious glory, Weaving manages to scare (and scarify?) with a mere glance, turn-of-phrase, or sneer. Golden moments (such as when, from his French provincial balcony, he gazes ceaselessly, interminably, at the terrified French maid holding a shaking tray, perversely declining to dismiss her from his clutches and her misery; or he chides Patrick for a confected misdemeanour – squishing a fallen fig; or regales his equally atrocious friends with stories from his gruesome past) are here in wondrous array, and then there’s of course worse to come. We can’t recall having a better time seeing an actor have a great time. The Melrose saga might be greater in parts than the whole, but on the whole, we’ll savour those parts.