Patrick Melrose


A very different kind of Melrose Place

Main Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Director: Edward Berger

I am an unabashed Benedict Cumberbatch fan. Loved him as Sherlock, loved him as Alan Turing, loved him as Dr. Strange. It seems to be a bit of a thing these days to bash on him, but that is not for me. If it also is not for you, might I suggest you let him break your heart in Patrick Melrose.

Patrick Melrose is based on a series of novels by author Edward St. Aubyn, which are said to be partly autobiographical (which also breaks my heart). The five part television series turns each novel into a small movie, the whole of which tells the story of a badly abused boy and the man he becomes who must bear the scars.

Cumberbatch stars as Patrick, and we first meet him in 1982. His father has just died and he has been sent to retrieve the ashes. Patrick is not in good health – due entirely to his drug and alcohol abuse – and this chore takes a particular toll. We meet him as a child in flashback and see the early roots of his adult dysfunction. Each successive installment takes us to a new chapter in Patrick’s adult life that also brings to the surface painful memories of his past.

Patrick Melrose is described as a dark comedy. And while Patrick is definitely witty, I strongly disagree with that classification. For me it felt much more like a very intense personal drama, lightened at times by some gallows humor. I don’t say that as a criticism, rather to let you know what to expect from the series.

The beating heart of Patrick Melrose is in the performances of three actors: Cumberbatch as Patrick, Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mother, and Hugo Weaving as his father. Cumberbatch is absolutely broken as adult Patrick, so lost and vulnerable and stupid. His substance abuse wreaks havoc on his body as his past wreaks havoc on his soul. The two are inexorably entwined and in each installment we hold our breath hoping that he can overcome either or both. Jennifer Jason Leigh is stunning as Patrick’s abused and neglectful mother. She brings enormous complexity to this loathsome character and is never for a moment afraid of taking the risks that allow us to see exactly how her behavior affects her son. Hugo Weaving as Patrick’s father is remarkably chilling and vile. We’ve seen him play a bad guy or two over the years, but David Melrose may be the worst person he has ever portrayed. And he’s great at it – which is both amazing and a little scary. He embodies this awful character without holding anything back, and it’s his performance that gives us nearly endless patience with Patrick as he struggles through his life.

Patrick Melrose is a study in visual contrast. In flashbacks we see a lush French villa where Patrick spent his childhood summers, bursting with life and color despite the rotting souls within. In his adult life, Patrick’s world vacillates between the washed out drabness of repression and the blue-black intensity of substance fueled rage. It’s very effective and keeps us on track with which time period we’re in.

While the bulk of this story is hard and sad, it’s a story that deserves to be told. Unfortunately Patrick has a lot of real life counterparts, in the substance if not in the details. Seeing such a bravely acted portrait of a conflicted, damaged person is a good reminder that we don’t know anyone’s story, not really. There is enough wit scattered throughout to keep the audience from tumbling into despair and it’s worth watching for the tremendous leading performances. Patrick Melrose is a tense, moving series and a good choice for anyone who likes the lead actors. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because it is very intense, and won’t be a good choice for people with abuse in their pasts.      

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