Patrick Melrose

Little Island Productions

Comedy Drama
English     7.8     2018     United Kingdom


A critical and often humorous look at the upper class, tracking the protagonist’s harrowing odyssey from a deeply traumatic childhood through adult substance abuse and, ultimately, toward recovery.


Stephen Campbell wrote:
**_Brilliantly acted; equal parts hilarious and harrowing_** > _No, he mustn't think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the one thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster's wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as_ _soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm._ - Edward St Aubyn; _Some Hope_ (1994) Directed by Edward Berger, and written for the screen by David Nicholls, this five-part miniseries is based on the semi-autobiographical _Patrick Melrose_ novels by Edward St Aubyn. Published between 1992 and 2011, the five novels (_Never Mind_, _Bad News_, _Some Hope_, _Mother's Milk_, and _At Last_), were essentially part of St Aubyn's rehabilitation, as he battled a crippling series of addictions stemming from sexual abuse at the hands of his father when he was a child. At the height of his dependency, St Aubyn was spending up to £5,000 a week on various drugs; heroin, IV cocaine, Quaaludes, amphetamines, barbiturates, opiates, alcohol. Sometimes alternately, sometimes together. In a part he had wanted for many years, Patrick is played by Benedict Cumberbatch; during an AMA on Reddit in 2013, Cumberbatch (who is also credited as one of seven executive producers) was asked what roles he would most like to play, to which he answered Patrick Melrose and Hamlet, both of which he has since performed. And although I wasn't overly impressed with his performance as Hamlet in Lyndsey Turner's 2015 Barbican Theatre production, his Patrick Melrose is absolutely superb. The series has its flaws, and I don't know if it was an advantage or a disadvantage that I hadn't read the novels before watching it, but Cumberbatch's fearless portrayal of the various stages of addiction and recovery is good enough to paper over (most of) the cracks. In fact, it's almost too good in places. But more on that later. Each of the five episodes is based on a single novel, with each set in a different year (indeed, most are set over the course of a single day). In the first episode, "Bad News" (set in 1982, and actually the second novel in the series), Patrick, in the midst of a debilitating heroin addiction, receives word that his sybaritic father, David (a truly terrifying Hugo Weaving), has died in New York, and Patrick must collect the body. Whilst there, he decides to quit drugs, but finds it more difficult than he imagined, as he remembers his fraught relationship with David. In "Never Mind" (set primarily in 1967, and the first novel in the sequence), as Patrick goes through heroin withdrawal upon returning from New York, he thinks back to his time on holidays in the family's French villa when he was eight. With his mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an alcoholic, Patrick (played as a child by Sebastian Maltz) has no one to protect him from his father, as he remembers the first day that David raped him. In "Some Hope" (set in 1990), Patrick, now clean, having spent time in a psychiatric ward, reluctantly attends a banquet for Princess Margaret (Harriett Walter) with his best friend Johnny Hall (Prasanna Puwanarajah), at which the behaviour of the gathered aristocrats disgusts the two men. In "Mother's Milk" (set in 2003), Patrick, now sober for several years, and working as a barrister, visits the family's French villa with his wife, Mary (Anna Madeley), and their two children, Robert (Marcus Smith) and Thomas (Dainton Anderson). Eleanor is extremely sick, having suffered a stroke, and Patrick is shocked to learn that she wants to change her will, leaving the villa to Seamus Dourke (Jonjo O'Neill), a New Age guru whom Patrick believes is manipulating her. The stress results in Patrick drinking heavily, much to Mary's disgust, who warns him that if he doesn't stop, she will leave him. In "At Last" (set in 2005), Patrick's drinking has spiralled out of control following the dissolution of his marriage. Meanwhile, Eleanor has asked him to euthanise her. As well as the above, the show features a diverse assortment of supporting characters, all brilliantly played by a top-rate cast. There's Julie (Jessica Raine), Patrick's flirtatious on-again, off-again girlfriend; Nicholas Pratt (a wonderfully loathsome Pip Torrens), an aristocratic friend of David's and an unapologetic snob; Anne Moore (Indira Varma), Patrick's gentle and affectionate nanny as a child; Nancy Valance (Blythe Danner), Eleanor's estranged sister, who believes children should be seen and not heard, or preferably not even seen; Bridget Watson-Scott (an absolutely superb Holliday Grainger, exuding effortless sex appeal), Nicholas's much younger girlfriend; Debbie Hickman (Morfydd Clark), Patrick's straight-laced girlfriend in 1982; Jacques d'Alantour (Hippolyte Girardot), the French ambassador to England, who runs afoul of Princess Margaret at the banquet; Kettle (Celia Imrie), Mary's acerbic mother; Jacqueline D'Alantour (Irène Jacob), Jacques's wife, who has no time for the British aristocracy; Sir Victor Eisen (James Fleet), Anne's husband, who lives in mortal dread of David; and Annette (Eileen Walsh), one of Seamus's followers. The show wastes no time in establishing straight out of the gate how severe Patrick's addictions are. In the opening scene of the first episode, he answers a telephone, to learn that his father has died. However, it's immediately apparent that something isn't quite right with the scene, with Patrick looking and talking as if he is slightly out of sync with everything else, just a little bit slower and more deliberate than is necessary. Struggling to keep himself upright, he sways, droops, seems about to fall asleep, all the while holding the receiver in his hand. Then he bends over. Is he consumed with grief? No, he's just spotted a syringe on the ground, and he wants to shoot up. Upon hanging up the phone, he then stares at the syringe, and his eyes come into focus for the first time. It's a stark introduction to the character, immediately establishing where his priorities lie at this point in his life and indicating the kind of hold drugs have on him. Indeed, "Bad News" in general spends considerably more time depicting Patrick's New York bender than the actual reason he travelled to the US in the first place; to collect David's body. This provides an immediate acting showcase for Cumberbatch, and is probably one of the main reasons the order of the novels was reversed, as adult Patrick only appears in a couple of scenes in "Never Mind". However, this does throw up a something of a problem not found in the novels. When the books are read chronologically, by the time the reader gets to the New York trip in the second book, they have already spent several hundred pages in the company of Patrick as a child, seeing him preyed upon by a monster. Thus, there is little that is glamorous about his search for and subsequent surrender to a cocktail of drugs. In the show, however, the viewer does not have this level of contextualisation; our introduction to Patrick is that of a fiercely intelligent rogue, prone to sarcasm, and unconcerned about the self-destructive nature of his behaviour. In short, because of the reversed order, the viewer is allowed to see the first episode in a more romanticised manner than the reader of the second novel. I can certainly see why the sequence was changed, but I'm not sure the trade-off was entirely worth it. Having said that, however, this is not to suggest that the show depicts drug addiction as no big deal; although it does initially present his drug-addled behaviour as (relatively) funny (the scene where the Quaaludes kick in is especially hilarious), as the first episode goes on, the narrative settles into a darker vibe, and by the time Patrick is sitting in a bath pouring whisky over his head, most of the comedy has been scaled back. Indeed, this well-balanced duality carries across all five episodes. Patrick knows the damage drugs are doing to him, yet he never loses his sense of caustic sarcasm about who he is. On the other hand, the show never strays into outright comedy at the expense of narrative believability – no matter how funny an individual moment may be, the totality, we are never allowed to forget, is rather bleak. Patrick is a fun character, articulate, intelligent, self-aware, but he is also a mess, and both his acerbic wit and his chemical dependency are at their height in this first episode. With that in mind, it is both the funniest and the darkest episode of the five; both a genuinely humorous physical comedy about the foibles of drug addiction and a horrifying descent into drug-induced psychosis and paranoia. Within this episode, an unusual stylistic device is used to draw us into Patrick's interiority. As he's getting higher and higher, he begins to employ more and more voices, carrying on a dialogue between them, but not in the sense that he speaks aloud in one voice and then answers aloud in another. Instead, the show uses voice-over, with some of the conversation delivered as standard dialogue, spoken out loud by Cumberbatch, and the rest coming from within Patrick's head, so that only the audience and Patrick himself can hear it. For example, ravenously eating dinner in New York, we hear in VO, spoken in an exaggeratedly posh voice, "_most people, withdrawing from heroin, high on speed, cudgelled by Quaaludes and jet-lag, might baulk at the idea of food, but not I. I eat not from greed but from passion!_" To this, Patrick responds, out loud, in his own voice, "_do shut up will you_" Upon ordering dessert, the posh VO says, "_but it's still not heroin is it? Heroin's the cavalry, the missing chair leg, it's medicine. Heroin is love._" This is followed immediately, still in VO, by a chirpy advertising voice intoning, "_simply call 555-1726..._". At this point, Patrick shouts at the top of his voice, "_oh, for fuck's sake SHUT UP!_" The different accents, coupled with the mixture of spoken dialogue and VO, serve to inculcate us into the chaos of Patrick's psyche, illustrating his tenuous grasp on reality. This sense of subjectivity is enhanced even further via a plethora of visual techniques. For example, he sees himself appearing on _The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson_ on a TV he himself is watching, unnatural lighting changes correspond to his mood, and glitches in the actual picture of the show itself happen in sync with his psychotic breaks. Most of these techniques are confined to the first episode, but the most prevalent is a technique that's used many times across the five – the bleeding of the past into the present. So, for example, Patrick remembering David shouting at him in the past will jerk awake in the present; a room in the present will remind him of a room in the past, and suddenly he'll be there; a lizard walking on the wall when he was first raped by David is a recurring motif throughout the show; he opens a door in 1982, and we suddenly cut to him standing in an open doorway in 1967. When it's not working to try to convey Patrick's subjectivity, the show deals with a number of themes; the ridiculousness of British royalty, the poisonous nature of the aristocracy, the corrupting power of wealth, the illogical importance of class, the unreality of the public school system, the cyclical nature of bad parenting, drugs, alcohol, unfulfilled and/or thwarted ambition, depression, sexual abuse, and stoicism in the face of any ill (stiff-upper-lipped Britishness and all). However, perhaps the most salient theme is the idea that when you deeply hurt a child, when you do something to damage a child's very soul, the effects will continue to be felt by any who come into contact with that child for many years after the fact. In short, the exact opposite of what Nicholas asserts when he claims, "_nothing that happens to you as a child really matters._" To which David readily agrees. As is alluded to throughout the first episode, and as becomes painfully clear in the second, when he was a child, Patrick was completely at the mercy of an utter monster. After calling young Patrick to him on the pretence of telling the boy about the day he told his own father he wanted to be a composer, David painfully lifts him up by his ears, all to teach him, "_never let other people make important decisions for you_." Later he calls Patrick to his room, ostensibly to tell him the story of King Shaka, but actually to rape him, and right before he does, he explains, speaking of Shaka's treatment of his soldiers, > _what had felt like cruelty at the time was actually a gift. It was actually love. I don't expect you to thank me now, but I hope perhaps when you're older, you'll be grateful for the skill of detachment that I've instilled._ Indeed, this scene is most chilling in what it doesn't show. When Patrick first comes to David's room, there is a shot of the perfectly-made bed on which David sits. After Patrick leaves the room, however, there is a shot of the bed in disarray. We never see what happens, because we don't need to. This is as well-directed a bit of cinematic shorthand as you're ever likely to see. Horrific in its simplicity, but also strangely elegant in its way. For all this childhood trauma, however, the editing on occasion suggests, especially in episode four, that Patrick is turning into just as bad a parent as David (molestation aside). Seeing Patrick standing on the same balcony that David once used to lord it over his staff and family may not be particularly subtle, but it is effective. Indeed, this is the same balcony where David's sadistic power games were first revealed to the audience – spotting a maid precariously carrying a tray laden with china, David calls her, forcing her to stop, tray in hand. The longer he leaves her standing, the more difficult it becomes for her to hold the tray, and the more the china clinks, all the while he stares down at her, grinning, saying nothing, revelling in the power he holds over her. Whilst the first episode may be the most formally inventive, this is not to say the others are aesthetically uninteresting. With St Aubyn's novels as the template, and David Nicholls's script as the guide, director Edward Berger is more daring than you might expect from the director of a mainstream prestige TV show. For example, each of the five episodes is grounded in a different genre, adopting the appropriate tone for that genre, and featuring a vastly different colour palette from the others. "Bad News" is a yuppie version of Danny Boyle's _Trainspotting_ (1996), a dark night of the soul awash in non-diegetic purples and greens, where the formal chaos mirrors the breakdown of Patrick's mind; "Never Mind" is a lurid, lazy summer retreat, similar in design to something like Luca Guadagnino's _Call Me By Your Name_ (2017), with a preponderance of deep yellows and reds, except, of course, the sensuousness of the imagery is here employed ironically; "Some Hope" is an _Upstairs, Downstairs_/_Gosford Park_-style comedy of manners, examining the ludicrousness of the class system, limiting the palette to mainly binary colours such as white and black; "Mother's Milk" (the only episode set over the course of several days) is partly a fish-out-of-water story and partly a psychosexual intellectual drama, wherein Patrick finds that although the French villa has lost its most hated figure, it still has the power to disturb; and "At Last" is a cold postmodern tragedy full of angst and unlooked-for self-discovery, dominated by metallics, greys, and blues. What Berger, cinematographer James Friend (_Truth or Dare_), production designer Tom Burton (_The Wedding Date_), art directors Will Smith and Lucienne Suren (_The Inbetweeners Movie_; _Taboo_), costume designer Keith Madden (_The Woman in Black_; _Mr. Holmes_), and editors Tim Murrell, Luke Dunkley, and Dan Roberts manage to pull off across these roughly five hours of television is to force this compendium of different styles, themes, and tones into something resembling a cohesive artistic statement. Aside from the issue of child abuse, and how such abuse can manifest itself in the victim years after the event, the second most obvious theme is perhaps best illustrated in some of the show's more esoteric moments, such as Anne asking Nicholas, "_why do you think it's superior to be amoral?_", David opining that "_what one aims for is _ennui," or Patrick claiming that irony is "_the hardest addiction of all_." In short, the show spends a great deal of time satirising the aristocracy. This is seen most clearly in the third episode, and especially in the odious character of Princess Margaret. However, the theme is present throughout all five episodes in one shape or another. In "Never Mind", for example, the Melrose family and their circle of friends, all of whom seem to loathe one another, are shown to be humourless, vainglorious prigs, with only Anne, Sir Victor, and, to a much lesser extent, Bridget emerging with any sense of decency. The show depicts a decadent, toxic, emotionally calcified, and morally bankrupt class of people belonging to another age, that has somehow lingered anachronistically into modernity and is desperately holding on to its outdated traditions. It is even suggested that the abuse done to Patrick in his childhood was enabled by a system that not only protects such individuals, but actively encourages them to display the characteristics of dominance and superiority. And although it is never explicitly stated that the aristocratic system facilitated David's abuse, the show still eviscerates a class of people whom centuries of self-indulgence have turned into a pseudo-incestuous stain on society. Of course, this also raises perhaps one of the most obvious objections to, if not necessarily criticisms, of the show – "why should we care?" Well, in part, we shouldn't. When it all boils down, this is the story of a spoiled rich kid falling victim to his addictions before trying to make something better of himself. It's the very definition of white male privilege, which isn't exactly a very sympathetic theme at the moment. And it never really manages to shake that identifying characteristic. But there is more to the show than that. The narrative may not be especially interesting, focusing more on isolated anecdotal-type incidents rather than a classic cause-and-effect plot, but for the themes outlined above, for the humour, for what it says about the British peerage, and, especially, for Cumberbatch's performance, this is certainly worth checking out. True, so dominant is his work, and so centred on his character is the show itself that on more than one occasion, it effectively turns into a one-man play, meaning if you're not a Cumberbatch fan, you definitely won't enjoy it. In that sense, he dominates proceedings _too_ much. But despite the fact that we know Patrick is an obnoxious addict, there is enough humanity in the performance to ensure we remember the very real trauma beneath the bluster. And, ultimately, we do come to care about Patrick; by the time we get to the fifth episode, and all the money, luxury, and social standing he once had are now gone, and we see him living in a bedsit I wouldn't want to enter without a hazmat suit, one cannot help but sympathise. This is a pseudo-Shakespearean fall, this is Lear gone mad, raging at the heavens in a storm, and it's rare to see quite so dramatic a collapse in a narrative of this type. And in that sense, it remains always compelling – brilliantly acted, with a lot to say about a myriad of issues.