The new Benedict Cumberbatch drama directly confronts the problem without glamorising it. This is sadly all too rareby Lucinda Smyth / May 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor who excels at a sweat. With his pallid complexion, gummy features and snaky blue eyes, his is a face eerily well-suited to a clammy sheen. It’s no surprise, then, that his notable roles have provided ample opportunity for this. A socially awkward genius solving a murder (Sherlock). A socially awkward genius solving the war (The Imitation Game). A tortured teenage prince having an existential crisis (Hamlet). A posho in tweed suffering the heat of an Edwardian summer (Parade’s End). A posho in tails suffering the heat of a torrid accusation (Atonement)… You know it’s going to get moist when Cumberbatch is in the credits.
Viewers hoping for sweat in his latest offering will not be disappointed. As Patrick Melrose, in the Sky adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s novels, Cumberbatch serves up a veritable smorgasbord of perspiration. There is the heroin sweat (vein-busting convulsions, dripping forehead). There is the cocaine sweat (quivering mouth, thin trickles along the temple). The quaaludes sweat (rolling eyes, slack mouth, pearly beads on the upper lip). The sober sweat (a light, even dampness). And the hunting-for-drugs sweat (anguished gurn, sticky collar), to name but a few. Each drop glistens with unique expression—on Cumberbatch’s forehead, on the back his neck, on the back of his knuckles. We are only on episode two.
Written by David Nicholls, the new five-part series is based on St Aubyn’s highly autobiographical Patrick Melrose cycle, which follows the title character as he comes to terms with the death of his hateful father. Melrose is an aristocratic misanthrope with an acid tongue, a way with the ladies and a severe addiction to heroin. He was repeatedly abused by his father as a child and has since suffered suicidal tendencies; drugs are employed as a (drastically unsuccessful) coping strategy. Another, better, coping strategy is sour humour: “In my family it was better to have been a concert pianist…,” says Melrose at his father’s wake. “Actually achieving anything would have been a sign of vulgar ambition.” At another point he laments his sobriety: “It’s fucking hard being lucid.” Like the novels, the programme pulls off the rare feat of treating an extremely heavy subject matter with a lightness of tone. It strings along the audience with razor-sharp witticisms and searing social comedy, before suddenly ricocheting into a suicide attempt, a drug trip, or a…