Patrick Melrose: 1.01 Bad News

Benedict Cumberbatch has long wanted to play Patrick Melrose, the central character in the autobiographical novels by Edward St Aubyn and watching the first episode of the TV adaptation by  David Nicholls, it is clear this really is a passion project for the actor. Cumberbatch is one of those actors who is immensely watchable in anything he does - from the brilliance of Sherlock to the less quality fare of John Harrison (whispers it's Khan!!!) in Star Trek Into Darkness to the latest big screen Marvel superhero Doctor Strange. He is an actor that can elevate bad scripts and excel at great and this performance might be one of his best yet.

Set in 1982, the first episode follows Cumberbatch's drug addicted Patrick Melrose discovering his aristocratic, ruthless father had died and his journey to New York to take his father's ashes back home. It is an emotional, manic, often hilarious and regularly harrowing first episode, that really doesn't hold back in exploring Melrose's drug use (and thus earning its 18 rating) but it is far from grim viewing either.

Cumberbatch delivers a manic energy; the scenes where he talks to his voices are mesmerising and its often unclear just how many there are or who is in control. At the heart of it is the young boy, glimpsed in disturbing flashbacks with his disturbing father, played with vile gusto by Hugo Weaving. Sebastian Maltz delivers an equally stunning performance as a boy broken, frightened and neglected, adding sympathy to Cumberbatch's adult self. The child is still fighting for dominance and there's no real sense of adult Melrose being just that - an adult.  Instead, he throws himself into addiction with no sense of responsibility or consequence for his actions.

The various women in his life are just playthings to indulge, sex proving to be as strong an addiction as the vast quantities of heroin, amphetamines, quaaludes, valium and alcohol he consumes over the course of the episode. But there is a real sense that he doesn't know how to connect to another human being when he was so utterly rejected by a cold, despicable father who will freely tell him the story of how he murdered a rabid man in India to an washed up mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), glimpsed briefly during the story.

Its an uneasy watch - Melrose shooting up in the crack den is particularly nasty - but the humour is dark and glorious. Crawling across the wall in the hotel, hooked up on heroin and martinis, we saw just how out of touch with the world he was, while I was on the edge of my seat watching him precariously balance the television at the edge of the bath in his hotel room. Just as funny were the scenes in the mortuary - Melrose marching into the wrong Jewish wake and exploding with profanity at the old lady was awkward and side-splitting, as were his rather tragic attempts to destroy the elaborate urn containing his father's ashes in his hotel room. It's dark humour - very dark - but it elevates what is some very powerful subject matter.

The episode is capped with Melrose, coming down from his latest high, telling his friend Jonny (Prasanna Puwanarajah) that he's going to give it all up and go clean. I'll be interested to see where this goes; I can't imagine this is the last we've seen of his drug-addled indulgence, but given how beautifully and tragically Patrick Melrose tackles the subject, I'm sure it's going to be a fascinating next four episodes...if an often uncomfortable viewing experience at times.

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