×

TV Review: ‘Patrick Melrose,’ With Benedict Cumberbatch

Even as a heroin addict, Benedict Cumberbatch is riveting.

Through much of the pilot, the title character remains what he was bred to be: an English gentleman. He just happens to be an English gentleman with an extraordinarily nasty smack habit.

Cumberbatch is his usual convincing self as the druggy Patrick Melrose, meaning he’s often slimy, contorted in agony, and at points, looks as if he smells rather gamy. Yet when he’s onscreen in Showtime’s limited series, you can’t turn away for a second.

He commands every scene, an impressive job considering he spends a fair amount of time alone on screen. And while he handles dialogue with grace and style, some of his most impressive scenes are played wordlessly; in one, he uses that long body to druggily traverse a swanky hotel mezzanine as the floor rises up to greet him.

Translating Edward St. Aubyn’s richly literate prose certainly presented a challenge to the filmmakers: His five poetic books examine the interior life of a self-destructive yet self-aware man in a way that isn’t dialogue-driven or even obviously filmic. Yet Edward Berger’s direction and David Nicholls’ screenplay deftly bring the characters to the screen.

Within the first few moments, a man on a halting trans-Atlantic call – it’s 1982 and there were delays during such long-distance connections – delivers the news that Patrick’s father has died. Those pauses should be filled with sobs, gasps or at least contained shudders of shock. Instead, Patrick is trying hard to suppress giggles.

Is it because the heroin he injected moments before is coursing through his system? Certainly, but Patrick’s overjoyed and relieved that his father has kicked. Preparing to go to Manhattan, he has to clean up — or at least wash off the blood trickling down his arm from shooting up. Not since Roy Scheider portrayed Bob Fosse in “All that Jazz” has someone smoked so well in a shower.

With Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” as the ambient song — “Now that I’ve lost everything to you…” — the tone is perfectly set. It is going to be a bumpy flight, particularly for Patrick who’s intent on getting stoned as fast as possible.

His elation over his father’s death is curious. It’s not as if he grew up deprived; clearly, judging by his understated but superbly tailored clothes, Patrick is well-off. This is a hatred that goes far deeper than money, and while Patrick doesn’t bother to conceal his feelings – even from his father’s close friends – it isn’t until the second episode that we learn why.

On meeting his father David Melrose fleetingly, he seems charming, if one is an unquestioning and status-conscious Anglophile. To know him more intimately, though, proves tiresome, especially if anyone dared question his invariably correct opinions. To be his wife was disastrous. To be his son was nothing short of terrifying.

And it is in that dark corner of fear where young Patrick cowered.

David (Hugo Weaving) is a larger-than-life character. Cut off by his own father for wanting to be – horrors! – a composer and a physician, he married Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an exceedingly rich American. She’s drunk most of the time, probably the only way to stay in this marriage (although it raises the question as to why stay). David, meanwhile, is too self-involved to notice, busy being a controlling megalomaniac, toying with people, roaring at them, but always in a plummy accent.

They are showy parts for actors, and both Leigh and Weaving clearly relish them.

So it’s hardly a drawback that the second episode, set in the South of France in 1967, focuses more on them than Cumberbatch. Beautifully designed and lit, the hour painfully illuminates Patrick’s wretched childhood. The terrific young Sebastian Maltz brings out all the hesitancy, loneliness and misery which filled the 9-year-old Patrick. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out why, 15 years later, Patrick has a serious drug habit.

With only the first two episodes available, and those being so different in tone and view – the second one harkens more to the nasty familial tensions and vicious verbal gymnastics of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — it’s folly to guess how the others will unfold. Yet the pair deliver a solid promise that we are in for something very special.

And proof that, however harrowing they become, Cumberbatch will keep us watching.

Limited series. (Five episodes; two reviewed) Sat. May 12, 9 p.m.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Patrick Melrose,' With Benedict Cumberbatch

CREW: Executive producers, Rachael Horovitz, Michael Jackson, Adam Ackland, Benedict Cumberbatch, Helen Flint

Crew: CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Arditti, Gary Beadle, Elizabeth Berrington, Morfydd Clark, Nancy Crane, Blythe Danner

More TV

  • TV News Roundup: Netflix Drops Trailer

    TV News Roundup: Netflix Drops Trailer for Ryan Murphy's 'The Politician' (Watch)

    In today’s TV news roundup, Netflix has drops the first trailer for “The Politician,” and “Killing Eve” adds two to its cast for season 3.  CASTING Harriet Walter and Danny Sapani, both alums of “The Crown,” are set to join the cast of “Killing Eve” for its third season. British writer Suzanne Heathcote, whose past credits include [...]

  • Lady Gaga

    Variety Earns 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Award Nominations

    Variety has received 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie award nominations for its coverage of the entertainment industry over the past year. The awards gala, which will take place at The Hilton Midtown in New York City on Oct. 30, celebrates publications that have demonstrated impressive investigative journalism, in addition to thoughtful digital and print design. [...]

  • Disneyland

    Disney Shares Slip Amid Reported Whistleblower Allegations of Inflated Revenue

    Sandra Kuba, a former senior financial analyst for Disney’s revenue operations unit, says she has filed a series of whistleblower tips with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that the entertainment conglomerate repeatedly and systematically overstated its revenue for years, according to a MarketWatch report, by as much as $6 billion in a single [...]

  • Bob Bakish Joe Ianniello

    ViacomCBS Sets Board Members; Bob Bakish, Joe Ianniello New Deals Disclosed

    ViacomCBS has unveiled the 13 members of its board of directors and details of new employment contracts for president-CEO Bob Bakish and CBS chairman-CEO Joe Ianniello. The disclosure came Monday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, six days after Viacom and CBS at long last set an all-stock merger agreement valued at [...]

  • Carrie Underwood, left, and Reba McEntire

    CMAs Make Hosting Change: Brad Paisley Exits, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire Are In

    The CMA Awards have had the most consistent hosting situation of any music awards show in television, but 11 years after installing Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood as the reliable faces of the telecast, even ABC and the Country Music Association have decided it’s time for a switch. Come Nov. 13, Underwood will return for [...]

  • Ava Max iHeartRadio Wango Tango, Portraits,

    Megan Thee Stallion, CNCO, Ava Max to Perform at VMAs Pre-show

    CNCO, Megan Thee Stallion and “Sweet but Psycho” singer Ava Max (pictured) have been added to the performer lineup at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The three will take the stage during the VMAs’ red carpet pre-show, hosted by Terrence J and Nessa. Zara Larsson will join the two hosts as a special correspondent. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content