Showtime’s Patrick Melrose is a crackling limited series boosted by scintillating performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Hugo Weaving, stellar writing from David Nicholls, and a commitment by the screenwriter to use source material (the autobiographical novels of Edward St. Aubyn) which are rich with content.
When watching the first two episodes, it evoked the same feelings I had when True Detective‘s first season was out. There was something undeniably special about that first series. The quality of the performances was terrific. The direction and the cinematography were magnificent. Patrick Melrose has the potential to be all of those things and so much more. Cumberbatch alone gives a career-defining performance in the title role. Nicholls skillfully transforms Aubyn’s unique brand of storytelling and creates a visually appealing tale weaved in with stories of addiction and dysfunction.
The narrative centers on the turbulent lifestyle of Patrick Melrose (Cumberbatch). Melrose is a middle-aged man, who lives from one minute to the next, figuring out which addiction will help him cope with life. Heroin, speed, quaaludes, and Jack Daniels are just some of his coping techniques. Melrose grew up in a home where addiction was on display daily. His father (played by Hugo Weaving) was abusive to anyone with a pulse. Melrose’s mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) uses every vice at her disposal to escape from the horrors of daily life. Melrose is dealing with the death of his father and the reminders those bring of childhood he would soon forget.
Cumberbatch proves to the audience in the first fifteen minutes why he was born to play the title role. He shows such range on-screen ranging from appearing lucid while tripping on heroin to dropping in and out of different voices during his frequent hallucinations while on speed. Cumberbatch’s character is ravaged by the pain stemming from a nightmarish childhood that he has detached himself from any sort of human intimacy. Audiences won’t know if they should laugh at Melrose’s exploits or cry. Leigh is fantastic as well showing such confliction over wanting to do the right thing for her son or drowning her sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. Weaving is a straight out monster. One minute, he’s using that booming voice to intimidate house guests and others it’s a look or tone taken which strikes fear in everyone. The performances are rich, nuanced, and the type of acting which will attract attention during Awards season.
Nicholls deserves so much credit for taking these complicated novels and translating them into five compelling hours of television. While each episode has it’s own theme, together they are a gratifying symphony which strikes the right notes and leaves audiences immensely satisfied. Director Edward Berger has an excellent eye for staging various moments during these episodes emphasizing both the comedic and dramatic moments. Cinematographer James Friend makes excellent use of the camera using random jerky moments to enhance how wasted Melrose is at any given time during the show.
Overall, Patrick Melrose is the perfect example of appointment television. From the acting, writing, direction, and even the camera work, nothing on television right now approaches the quality of this show. These shows don’t come around often but certainly should be celebrated when they do.