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Cumberbatch Is A Riveting 'Patrick Melrose,' An Aristocrat Haunted By His Past

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character in the Showtime miniseries <em>Patrick Melrose</em>, which begins on Saturday.
Ollie Upton
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character in the Showtime miniseries Patrick Melrose, which begins on Saturday.

Benedict Cumberbatch, the deep-voiced, strikingly handsome actor whose roles have ranged from Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Strange, once said there were only two roles on his long-standing acting "bucket list."

One was Hamlet, a role he played in 2015. The other? Patrick Melrose, a role he tackles — and conquers — in a new Showtime miniseries beginning Saturday. Parts of it are wickedly funny; other parts are searingly dramatic. But all of it is riveting, and excellent.

The first novel featuring Patrick Melrose — a privileged British aristocrat with a past that haunts him, and a drug addiction that nearly kills him — was published in 1991. Like the others in the series, it was written by Edward St. Aubyn as a mostly autobiographical exercise in exhuming and confronting both his demons and his childhood.

St. Aubyn's mother was a wealthy American who gave his British father not only money, but power. The abuses of that power, directed at both young Patrick and his mother, are particularly cruel and severe — and are unveiled slowly in this TV production ofPatrick Melrose.

The first two episodes cover the events of the first two books, but not in sequence. One story line reveals the horrid abuse the father inflicts upon his 5-year-old son. The other shows Patrick, in his 20s and fighting the riptide of an addiction to heroin, learning that his father has died, and flying to New York City to retrieve his father's ashes.

Two questions are central to this Patrick Melrose miniseries. The first: Can Patrick climb out of the drug-fueled, bitterly hostile spiral he's in? The other is: What put him there?

For the second question, we spend a lot of time watching Patrick's childhood, where Sebastian Maltz plays young Patrick, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays his mother — and Hugo Weaving, in a role that's frightening in its dispassionate depravity, plays his father.

The scenes from the past are so intense, even at what should be casual dinner parties and outdoor gatherings underneath fig trees, that you don't even notice, much less resent, that Cumberbatch is offscreen for large chunks of time. And when he's there, the actor is so good at embodying and reflecting all of Patrick's tightly coiled pains and emotions, he takes us with him every perilous step of the way.

Other co-stars include Blythe Danner, Allison Williams and Holliday Grainger, all of whom contribute to a miniseries that might be described as Brideshead Revisited meets Trainspotting. David Nicholls, who adapted this story for television, and Edward Berger, who directs all five episodes, are both clearly on the same wavelength as the star of this show.

The title character's story is unforgettably gripping, and so is the experience of watching this miniseries. One of Patrick's father's sayings, quoted often during the drama, is, "Go with the best, or go without." Watching Showtime's Patrick Melrose is going with the best.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.