An Iconic Actor in An Iconic Role, Part 2
When Sherlock debuted on PBS and the BBC in 2010, one of the many, many remarkable things about it was Benedict Cumberbatch’s extraordinary job taking a character that dozens of actors have played to the point of making him a caricature, thrusting him into the modern era, and making him a fully dimensional and evolving human being. He managed to make Sherlock Holmes vital, while doing so much to keep insulated and restrained. He more than deserved the Emmy he got.
Cumberbatch has played many more memorable characters on the big screen, many of them icons in their own right — Marvel’s Dr. Strange, Star Trek’s Khan — and others just as fascinating — Julian Assange and Alan Turing are among the most famous. So at this point, you would find it hard to imagine that he could be capable of surprise. Or so you’d think. Because Showtime and SKY TV in Britain have collaborated to put Cumberbatch in the title role of Patrick Melrose, a character at the center of five world famous short novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I have not read any of these novels, but based on what I saw in the premiere episode, that may not necessarily be a detriment to the average viewer.
In the first episode ‘Bad News’, Patrick learns of the death of his father, played by another iconic character actor (Hugo Weaving). His reaction is more joyous than mournful — he gets drunk and visits both his girlfriend and his mistress, saying he plans to give up drugs. He then flies to New York to pick up his father’s body, fully drunk, and then lasts all of five minutes before going to Central Park to get hooked up. (The first episode is set in 1982, which makes a lot more sense to the modern viewer.) He then goes to the funeral home, acknowledges the body, meets with friends, and has dinner all the while trying to deny that he needs heroin in a frankly hysterical inner monologue that often leaves his own head. Eventually, he goes to a very seedy lot to get a fix, and then visits his hookup to get cocaine. Things accelerate downhill, as he burns his hand, floods his room, pokes his eyes, drinks with his father’s friends, has a disastrous date (with his father’s ashes in tow) and tries to destroy his hotel room. All the while, it becomes increasingly clear that their is some deep trauma going on with his father, going back to his childhood, a very clear problem with his mother (who can’t be bothered to leave charity work in Africa to go to the funeral), and some woman named Evelyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
All of this is much more entertaining then it sounds, because Cumberbatch turns everything up to eleven. Anyone who saw Sherlock knows how good he was with snark, but there was always a certain measure of restraint. Patrick Melrose clearly has none (the alcohol and drugs probably don’t help), and watching him unload on everybody, not always intentionally is hysterically funny, even as we realize we really shouldn’t be laughing at this.
Nothing else in the first episode quite measures up to it, though Alison Williams does a decent job as the unfortunate woman who Patrick has his disastrous date with. (There’s clearly some very bad history there; Patrick refreshes her parents memory’s by reminding them, he overdosed in their bathtub, and that they had to tear down the door to save him). Also, there’s clearly a level of confusion and disconnect here, brought on by the fact that the episode was based on the second novel in the series. Oddly enough, I think it worked in the series favor; Patrick’s lost weekend is so skewed and chaotic that much of the time we felt a lot more in his head. What remains unclear is whether the series can find a direction from here.
Nevertheless, in Cumberbatch we trust. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, he doesn’t exactly chew the scenery, but he sure as hell snorts it. And to see this actor unplugged and loose in a way he’s really never been before, is far more entertaining then a lot of other TV. I suspect he will be in the Emmy conversation once again.
My score: 4 stars.