Patrick Melrose TV review: 'Cumberbatch's performance is among the best screen work of anyone I’ve ever seen'
Patrick Melrose, Sky Atlantic, Sunday - 5 stars
“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1916 in a preface to Pygmalion.
Despite a century of supposed social progress, Shaw’s observation is as true today as it ever was. The singularly English (as opposed to British) habit of making snap judgments about a person based on the way they talk is thriving in the 21st century. Just ask Benedict Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch, who went to Harrow, gets an inordinate amount of flak from his fellow Englishmen for his “posh” accent, even though he’s no more posh than his contemporaries Damian Lewis, Dominic West, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne, all of whom attended Eton.
Fortunately, audiences in the rest of the world can see beyond this provincial nonsense, which is why he’s one of the busiest actors working today, with a bulging portfolio of glowing credits.
That glow has been enhanced tenfold by Patrick Melrose, which came to the end of its sizzling five-episode run last night.
Cumberbatch was the driving force behind bringing Edward St Aubyn’s five semi-autobiographical novels to the screen, and it’s easy to see why he was so desperate to play Melrose.
This was a magnificent part for any actor: an ostensibly privileged alcoholic and drug addict whose wealth and position allow him to indulge his vices to the full, but whose frequent detours into chemically-induced oblivion are a way of blotting out the unbearable pain of a life destroyed by a monstrously tyrannical father (Hugo Weaving) who repeatedly raped him as a boy and a useless mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who repeatedly let him down.
Patrick the lonely, terrified, abused little boy was never far below the surface of Patrick the suave, womanising wastrel desperate to prevent “the poison dripping down from generation to generation”, destroying his own two sons.
After last week’s episode, which saw his mother, now elderly and incapacitated by a stroke, deliver a final betrayal by leaving the lavish family home in the south of France to an unctuous Irish charlatan called Seamus (an infuriatingly passive-aggressive Jonjo O’Neill) and his band of New Age nutjobs, we desperately wanted a happy ending for Patrick.
And we got one – possibly.
The finale, based on St Aubyn’s novel At Last, switched back and forth between three time periods: the days leading up to Patrick’s mother’s death, her funeral, and Patrick in the now (or rather in 2005) as, separated and suffering from delirium tremens, he books himself into rehab in a final attempt to get clean and sober (after a brief ‘escape’, he voluntarily returned, ending the story on a hopeful note).
There was a huge revelation here. When Patrick finally plucks up the courage to tell his mother, after all these years, that his father raped him numerous times, she replies in a whisper: “Me too.”
Rather than bringing the two of them closer together, this sent Patrick spiralling further into confusion, despair and boiling anger.
The funeral was a cathartic experience for him.
It was as if he was seeing, fully and clearly for the very first time, the true ghastliness of the people orbiting around him: his horrendous aunt (Blythe Danner), his appalling mother-in-law (Celia Imrie) and especially his father’s best friend, the obnoxious Nicholas (Pip Torrens), whose daughter, we learned, was also abused by Patrick’s father.
Much credit must go to David Nicholls’ miraculous compression of the books into five hours, Edward Berger’s dazzling direction and the wonderful supporting cast.
However, this was Cumberbatch’s show all the way. He’s a fantastic actor at the height of his powers, and he dug forensically deep into the character and mined pure gold.
It’s among the best screen work of anyone I’ve ever seen.