The genius of Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels is in how relentlessly they amalgamate horror and beauty. The loosely autobiographical series—once named the Melrosiad by a Guardian reviewer—depicts child sexual abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, and a smorgasbord of emotional torture, but does so in such entrancing prose that it insulates the reader from the unbearable. Heroin, in St. Aubyn’s writing, is “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.” The failure of a love affair is when “the jeweled daggers that used to pierce one’s heart are replaced by ever-blunter penknives.” Patrick’s mother, deliberately myopic to her husband’s abuse of her son, is “perfectly preserved in the pickling jar of money, alcohol, and fantasy.”
The question for a television adaptation, then, is how to translate this layer of literary embellishment for the screen, with infinitely fewer words to work with. Patrick Melrose, which debuts Saturday on Showtime in a five-part miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch, pulls it off. In the hands of the screenwriter David Nicholls and the director Edward Berger, the distancing device of metaphor is replaced with lush, hypersaturated imagery. There’s a savage kind of beauty in the way a mustard-colored velvet slipper crushes a ripe fig into the dusty ground, and in a bright-red spot of blood that forms in the crook of Patrick’s blue-and-white striped shirt.
With the exception of the fourth installment, each of the Melrose novels takes place in a single day, a structure that lends itself neatly to episodic television. Nicholls switches the order of the first two books so that the miniseries starts with Bad News, in which a heroin-addled, 20-something Patrick is informed that his father has died, and is summoned to New York to pick up the late David Melrose’s ashes. It’s an effective trick that prolongs the inevitable question as to why Patrick is so hopelessly lost and miserably self-anesthetizing. Then, in the second episode—set at one of the Melrose family homes in the south of France when Patrick is a child—we find out.
Adapting the Melrosiad is a passion project for Cumberbatch, who once described Patrick alongside Hamlet as the two roles he desperately wanted to play. The books are somehow both intensely honest (writing them seems to have been a relatively therapeutic way for St. Aubyn to exorcise his familial demons) and darkly satirical, lampooning the strangeness of the English upper classes with execution that only an insider could manage. The miniseries, arriving into a culture that typically has little sympathy for such crystallized white male privilege, delves deeply into the trauma that has fragmented Patrick’s mind in such brutal fashion. In the first episode, he’s boorish, entitled, and wafting catastrophe like cologne, but the show makes clear that these are just symptoms of the various ills that afflict him: abuse, addiction, and aristocracy.
“Bad News” feels at times like an unholy fusion of Evelyn Waugh and Hunter S. Thompson. Patrick flies to New York, checks into his regular Central Park–adjacent suite, promises himself out loud that he won’t take drugs, and then embarks on a bender only previously emulated by Keith Richards during the Exile on Main Street era. Berger conveys Patrick’s frightening mental decline in sharp color with rapid cuts between shots. But there’s exquisite comedy in his careless one-liners, with Cumberbatch wrapping Patrick’s morbid humor around himself like a protective coat. In one scene, when Patrick opens his father’s coffin, he puts on an affectedly chirpy voice and says, “It’s just what I wanted! You shouldn’t have.”
The second episode, “Never Mind,” depicts the first book in the series, and the one in which St. Aubyn got to the crux of what happened to him. David Melrose, played in radiantly sadistic form by Hugo Weaving, lives a sybaritic lifestyle in France in a house bought with his wife’s money. Eleanor Melrose (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an American heiress whose ugly marriage seems to have driven her into a cotton-wool cloud of inebriation. She’s occasionally gentle and loving to her son, young Patrick (played magnificently by the newcomer Sebastian Maltz), but primarily weak and selfish. Nicholls allows Eleanor flashes of St. Aubyn’s mordant wit: Describing the family home to a guest, she says, “We were going to turn it into a house for alcoholics. Which, in a sense, we did.”
The moment when David’s acute savagery first becomes clear is when he shouts down from his bedroom window to a maid who’s carrying a tray of antique china, and silently relishes the way the plates clank in her shaking, terrified hands. He terrorizes his wife, who spends as little time in his presence as possible, and holds a dinner knife to a young woman’s bare leg under the table at dinner. But Patrick is the target for his most ferocious assaults, which Nicholls and Berger wisely decline to depict. David justifies his abuse as something that will necessarily harden his son for the world—a lie so deeply entrenched in the rituals of the British class system that it may never be excavated. “What felt like cruelty at the time was actually a gift,” David tells his son, in a tight, cut-glass breath. “Was actually love. I don’t expect you to thank me now.”
It’s only in the third episode that Patrick begins to get to grips with this cursed legacy: not just the assaults that shattered his childhood, but also the inheritance of casual viciousness and purposelessness that defines his social stratum. “Some Hope” takes place largely at a party where Princess Margaret (an acidic Harriet Walter) is in attendance, and the series draws more explicit parallels between the ghastliness of the event and the horror of Patrick’s life than the book does. Compared to the rosier portrayals of the British elite in The Crown, Patrick Melrose lacerates a class of people whom centuries of self-indulgence have calcified into callousness and toxic absurdity.
The miniseries is an achievement on two fronts. For one thing, it’s the most remarkably faithful adaptation of a series of books in recent memory, capturing the tone and the aesthetic of the Melrose novels without sacrificing cohesion. But Patrick Melrose is also darkly entertaining, veering between young Patrick’s anguish and older Patrick’s episodes of situational comedy without diminishing either. Cumberbatch—and Maltz—convey how trauma has ravaged Patrick’s psyche, but the series also hints that the cycle of violence handed down through generations of Melroses might end with him, and with his recovery and acceptance. “You don’t need to get so Californian about it,” Patrick says in one scene to his friend Johnny, who’s in Narcotics Anonymous. “There’s no need to be so English,” Johnny replies. And Patrick seems to agree.