If there’s one thing the English excel at, it’s creating snobs who are great at bitchy one-liners. And with the lead of the Patrick Melrose series of novels, author Edward St Aubyn, created a classic – which is why the recent miniseries adaptation (five novels turned into five hour-long episodes) was so eagerly anticipated by fans of snark.
Watching the first episode (the whole thing is out now on DVD), the series delivered everything you could have hoped for: Benedict Cumberbatch is Patrick Melrose, latest offspring of a one-proud family that’s fallen on hard times – in fact, times are so hard he’s the first family member in generations who’s had to work for a living. Not that he’s doing much work (or living, really) in the opening episode: his father (Hugo Weaving) has just died in New York, and Patrick’s flown over to collect the body… and do a massive amount of drugs, which is how he spends most of his days. He also loathes his father, which is where things start to get slightly interesting.
The first episode is pretty much a roller-coaster of drug abuse and crazy antics with just enough of an undercurrent of sadness to stop things from drifting off into pointlessness: Melrose might like taking drugs, but there’s a reason behind his addiction.
The second episode fills in the gaps, as over a childhood holiday in the family’s holiday home in the south of France we see his father is a loveless and – literally – abusive monster, while his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an ineffectual airhead with issues of her own. There’s still plenty of the trademark wit and quips, but it’s much tougher viewing in parts – and then it turns out that (thankfully) this is what the entire series is about.
The first episode isn’t really a misdirection – being a hard-using party boy is at the core of who Patrick is – but the series is about someone trying to escape their past and become, for want of a better term, a better person; the three instalments that follow, covering the next decade and a half of Patrick’s life, see him battling against his addictions (which aren’t limited to drink and drugs) and trying to become a better father than his was. Relapses happen: they’re nowhere near as fun to watch as they were in the beginning. And Patrick’s anger towards his parents is completely justified: his father was a monster, while his mother provides no support whatsoever (she ends up giving away the family home to a hippie commune).
It’s a series that ends up being about someone deciding that while he might have been given the crap end of the stick, that doesn’t mean he has to go around beating the people he loves with it – and if that sounds a bit too grim and serious, it does also feature Cumberbatch doing his finest work to date as someone always ready with a smart (or smart-arse) line to stick into those around him. He’s a bastard, but he’s a likeable bastard, even when he’s being a bastard to people who really don’t deserve it – and more often than not, that list includes himself.
Written by Anthony Morris