Benedict Cumberbatch goes full-tilt in ‘Patrick Melrose’

Patrick Melrose is the protagonist of a series of novels by British writer Edward St. Aubyn. Highly autobiographical, they offer a withering portrait of the English upper classes and a horrific chronicle of St. Aubyn’s childhood. A long period of drug abuse followed.

The series based on those novels starts with Patrick at rock bottom, in 1982. Living in London, he’s a heroin addict who gets some bad news: his father David (Hugo Weaving) has died. Patrick must fly to New York to pick up the old guy’s ashes. The prospect fills him with abject fear and Patrick ingests all manner of pharmaceuticals — more smack; cocaine, Quaaludes — and gallons of alcohol to cope. Shots of Patrick approaching the room at the funeral home where his father’s corpse is laid out are cross cut with others of him as a little boy (Sebastian Maltz) apprehensively approaching his father’s open bedroom door. What happened in that room is at the very heart of the story and director Edward Berger handles that revelation with a degree of restraint that tells you all you need to know to get the picture.

Not so the Cumberbatch scenes in Episode 1. A versatile actor who has played Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet and gay math whiz Alan Turing, an Oscar-nominated role in “The Imitation Game,” Cumberbatch registers the effects of Patrick’s massive intake with equally massive gestures. He twitches, he tries in vain to hang onto a wall in a hotel cafe and doesn’t quite make it, he passes out, he trashes hotel rooms, he throws up. This is acting you can see, in neon — the stuff awards are made for, but it seems too deliberate to elicit our empathy for the character.

More effective is the scenario presented in the second episode, a flashback to Patrick’s childhood and a summer in 1967 he spent with his parents at their house in the South of France with their supercilious friends. His mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a wealthy American boozehound and pill popper who is too high and too sad to pay her son any mind. Dad is a stern, articulate beast, making the servants quake and intent on teaching Patrick lessons that will toughen him up for adulthood. One of these includes the dropping of trousers. While Cumberbatch thrashes about on-screen, Maltz registers every flicker of terror and helplessness with minimal movement to deliver a poignant, heartfelt performance.

Almost as good is Leigh, who has a long history of playing characters with substance abuse problems, but here delivers lines like “I think the secret is not to interfere” with a deadly mixture of tipsy gentility and willful maternal blindness that makes one shiver.

With each of the five episodes based on a corresponding novel in the St. Aubyn series, we see by Episode 3, which takes place in 1990, that Patrick (who keeps a bottle of Prozac on his night stand) may really be on the road to recovery. As the sobered-up Patrick, Cumberbatch — wearing sunglasses to a 12-step meeting like a Hollywood celebrity — cuts a believable figure.

Some tonal adjustments may have gotten “Patrick Melrose” off to a better start. Right now it feels like an overdose.

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