Roush Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Triumphs in 'Patrick Melrose'

Matt Roush
SHOWTIME

A dream role that’s also a living nightmare, Patrick Melrose is the sort of human train wreck who never loses his gift for sparkling cynicism even when circling the drain of self-destructive indulgence on a heroin and alcohol bender.

With harrowing bravado and lacerating wit, Benedict Cumberbatch instills an achingly vulnerable core to the tortured hero of Edward St. Aubyn’s five-novel series Patrick Melrose, stylishly adapted by writer David Nicholls and director Edward Berger.

'Patrick Melrose' EP Says Benedict Cumberbatch Will Transfix Viewers

'Patrick Melrose' EP Says Benedict Cumberbatch Will Transfix Viewers

The actor makes his first post-'Sherlock' TV performance in the Showtime series.

Each episode is based on a different book — the first three hours were made available for review — and captures a specific moment in the mercurial Patrick’s life, starting with his substance-abusing meltdown upon learning of his loathed father’s death in 1982. Traveling from London to New York City to retrieve dad's ashes, this escapade is a harrowing introduction to an addict hitting bottom: squirming in his own skin, mocking while courting death in a garishly flamboyant display of extremes.

Patrick Melrose - Benedict Cumberbatch

The following episode, flashing back two decades to the late 1960s in the south of France, reveals the source of Patrick's brokenness: a terrifying father, David Melrose (Hugo Weaving), remembered as a gluttonous ogre of sadism who bullies and abuses young Patrick (a heartbreaking Sebastian Maltz) and wife Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh, dazed and pickled), poisoning their psyche for years to come. "What one aims for is ennui," the appalling David regales his dinner guests, though at least one (Indira Varma) takes pity at this little lost boy amid a sea of jaded adults.

The tone lightens up in the third installment, set in 1990, as a post-withdrawal Patrick reenters high society for a comedy of bad manners at a posh party for Princess Margaret (a withering Harriet Walter), where he wonders if “without bitterness, spite, sarcasm, snobbery and self-loathing, there might be nothing left.” We, and he, know better — though without these qualities, Patrick wouldn't be Patrick, and someone as gifted and ambitious as Cumberbatch wouldn't be compelled to bring him to such dynamic and unforgettable life.

Patrick Melrose, Series Premiere, Saturday, May 12, 9/8c, Showtime

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