You've seen Benedict Cumberbatch in 'Avengers.' Now see him in something much better.

Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose in <em>Patrick Melrose</em> (Photo: Justin Downing/Showtime)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Melrose in Patrick Melrose (Photo: Justin Downing/Showtime)

In Patrick Melrose, Benedict Cumberbatch is the man in the title role, an upper-class Englishman with a languid air, a lazy snob who uses what little energy he possesses to get high: shooting heroin and nodding off, trying to keep himself cut off from the outside world, cocooned from interacting too much with anyone. In this adaptation of the great novels by Edward St. Aubyn, Cumberbatch’s Patrick is at once a poignant figure and a repulsive one, a man to whom we can extend our sympathy without ever quite liking him. It is Cumberbatch’s achievement that we want to continue watching Patrick, in much the same way that St. Aubyn keeps us reading the books despite the fact that its central character is someone we’d probably want to steer clear of in real life.

Avengers: Infinity War is fine for what it is — jolly fun in a bloated, overblown manner. Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange is, as usual, amusing in the way the actor presents him as both scholarly and up for an adventure. But if you’re a rabid Cumby-fan, wouldn’t you also like to see him in the role that he has said he “desperately” wanted to play? Cumberbatch co-produced Patrick Melrose, and it may have required a big-name pop-culture star like him to get this made, since it is decidedly downbeat, frequently depressing fare. But for those of us who admire St. Aubyn’s lustrously vivid prose, the books are treasured — to such an extent, I initially didn’t want to look at this new Showtime series: I thought, how could they possibly get these stories right onscreen?

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Turns out, Camberbatch and company have done quite well. This five-part adaptation — an hour episode for each of St. Aubyn’s five Melrose novels — begins with the showiest, most dramatic moments: Patrick on a drug bender, notified of his father’s death and summoned to America to pick up Daddy’s body. Screen adapter David Nicholls and director Edward Berger turn Patrick’s drug-induced state into a series of raucous, suspenseful action scenes in which you’re not sure our hero will complete his task before passing out or, perhaps, overdosing.

And while the opening hour is a showcase for Cumberbatch’s most varied and dramatic acting, it also eases you into the rougher stuff: the reasons why Patrick hates his father so much. This is detailed in the second episode, “Never Mind,” a flashback to Patrick’s youth, in which his father, David, played by Hugo Weaving (The Matrix; The Lord of the Rings), rapes his son (played by Sebastian Maltz) and submits him to almost unendurable mental distress. The agony of this situation is contrasted with its setting among the posh upper classes, with their endless rounds of parties and avoidance of real-world strife. It is the British reserve — the haughty notion that to admit to strong emotions is to be terribly vulgar — that enables David Melrose to keep his crimes against his son a secret, one that even his mother, played as existing in an alcoholic haze by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is aware of but chooses to ignore, lest she cause a scene.

While Patrick Melrose is quite good at depicting what St. Aubyn describes in the book as “the lethal combination of pride and cruelty and sadness which had dominated his father’s life,” it should be said that the series is also very funny. Funny in a so-awful-you-have-to-laugh way (OMG, did Patrick really stick that gigantic, filthy needle into his arm?) but also in a more elegant, comedy-of-manners way. (There’s an extended dinner party scene involving Princess Margaret that will cure you of any fondness you may have had for her after watching The Crown.)

If you like the TV show version of Patrick Melrose, by all means grab the novels. Just like the TV series, there are five of them, and the Showtime show flips the order of the first two so that we meet the adult Patrick before the child Patrick. Patrick Melrose gives you the star at his Cumberbatchiest, while also exposing an audience that might otherwise never know them to the superlative St. Aubyn books.

Patrick Melrose airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

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