After Edward St. Aubyn saw the British premiere of Patrick Melrose, the new Showtime series premiering this weekend and based on his five novels and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, St. Aubyn says he felt like “the luckiest novelist in the world.”
The part of Patrick Melrose, a thinly fictionalized stand-in for St. Aubyn, also happens to be the role Cumberbatch has said he wanted to take on more than any other literary character. St. Aubyn thought the performance was “extraordinarily powerful,” and the actor embraced the material—dark as it is, loaded with drug, alcohol, sexual, emotional, and just about any other kind of abuse a person can be bludgeoned with—with total commitment, in a way that is sure to satisfy fans of the novels.
Cumberbatch’s rapid and smooth delivery, and his range in register from ironic and wicked to deeply earnest, captures the books’ depiction of an English upper class milieu that is simultaneously held together and undone by the compulsion to make an art form out of “aphoristic dismissal,” as St. Aubyn terms it. The facade of contempt masks not only vapidity, but also trauma and addiction, which Patrick gradually works to overcome.
Though the books proceed in chronological order from Patrick’s childhood, the Showtime adaptation starts with the second book, Bad News, which sees Patrick fly to New York from London in 1982 to claim his recently deceased father’s ashes and embark on a cocaine- and heroin-shooting binge that would horrify the characters from Trainspotting.
But Patrick’s greatest addiction, which he inherited from his wicked father, is irony. St. Aubyn explains, “Patrick is gradually getting detoxed from this world, which was essentially a world of idleness and contempt and immense sophistication that is supposed to cover up for the idleness.”
Patrick’s fractured emotional state gave St. Aubyn the opportunity to produce a brilliant, frenetic interplay of voices. Patrick hears them in his head and responds out loud, often with an exasperated “Shut up!” When Patrick is completely alone he performs the voices with greater indulgence, which St. Aubyn says keeps the character from taking “that extra step into psychosis.”
On set, St Aubyn mostly tried to stay out of the way. But he believed passionately in the need to film the voices, and for Cumberbatch to perform them the way that Patrick does in the novels. “Benedict kind of agreed as did [director] Edward [Berger] and gradually the consensus changed. It was going to be straight drama but these compulsive impersonations and sub-personalities also license a voice-over, which otherwise would seem like a very old fashioned convention. But it seems now radically new because it's combined with madness or psychosis for someone who's in at least a highly schizoid if not fully schizophrenic state of mind.”
When Bad News cuts from an anguished meeting with an old family friend to an ebullient solo dinner scene in a dark art deco booth, we see Cumberbatch as Patrick throwing back a martini in one gleaming gulp before channeling Peter O’Toole: “We have taken Aqaba!” After he orders food, there is a voiceover of Cumberbatch imitating Patrick’s childhood nanny. When the waiter hears Patrick talk back, he asks if someone will be joining him. Cumberbatch conveys the indignation perfectly: “I certainly hope not!”
Later, left to his own devices in his hotel room, he lets the voices run wild, from Captain Kirk to Coronation Street. Everything seems to be under control until he impersonates a bland Californian who tells him to “visualize a pagoda,” then go in and embrace his mother but not his father, and suddenly the father’s bellowing, Kafkaesque admonishments (delivered with fragile brutishness by Hugo Weaving) overtake him with a shattering blow.
As the novels (collected by Picador in The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels and newly repackaged in a tie-in edition) progress, Patrick is run through the recovering addict’s spin cycle. The mix of forward momentum and recurring images is captured inventively in the adaptation. “We've all seen flashbacks,” St. Aubyn said, “but [these] become as natural as memory. There isn't any explanation; they're quite brief.” In the hotel scene, a five-year-old Patrick reaches out to embrace his idle mother, played with sensitivity and depth by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the image flickers back to the fevered 22-year-old reaching into empty space. The effect is a far cry from the creaky techniques that were once used so often in literary adaptations, which St. Aubyn gently dismisses as “the days when you used to have an open window and a wind blowing through it and pages of the calendar flying off. You know, oh, we're going back in time or we're going forward in time.”
St. Aubyn has been candid about the autobiographical nature of the Patrick Melrose novels, and the importance of completing them in order to exorcize the demons that had driven him to such self-destructive lengths. Asked whether the experience of collaborating with Cumberbatch brought him back to lived experience, he said the “process has been a kind of double sublimation. Far from being haunted, I felt I was being re-exorcized.” One of the side effects of the initial exorcism was that people associated him with the character, which is one of the reasons he’s pleased that the role has been taken up by such a well-known actor: “The burden of being identified with Patrick is about to pass to Benedict, on his broad shoulders.”
He also acknowledges the “very particular setting” of English aristocracy, but describes how he was able to write himself out of its confines, which is what makes the story appealing to audiences. “It's a story of gradual liberation. It has a very particular setting, but I think it really touches on what, as far as I know, from everyone I've ever met, people are universally interested in. How did I become as I am and what can I do to change it?”