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'Patrick Melrose' review: Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant in Showtime miniseries

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Showtime's "Patrick Melrose."

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Showtime's "Patrick Melrose." Credit: Showtime / Ollie Upton

THE MINISERIES Patrick Melrose,”

WHEN|WHERE Saturday at 9 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT British author Edward St. Aubyn wrote a series of best-selling novellas in the '90s under the umbrella title “Patrick Melrose,” each essentially about his own life growing up in the shadow of a father who sexually assaulted him and an immensely wealthy socialite American mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who was clueless about the assaults. This five-parter begins with Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) who heads from London to New York to pick up the remains of his father, David (Hugo Weaving), who has just died. It's the mid-'80s and Patrick is an alcoholic and heroin addict. This trip sends him on a desperate bender. Next week, viewers get to meet the monster himself.

MY SAY In a nod to his enforced self-control, a 2014 New Yorker profile on St. Aubyn observed that the middle-aged – and sober – writer had physical gestures with “a bomb-disposal delicacy.” In the first episode of this miniseries based on St. Aubyn's alter ego from 30 years earlier, the bomb has already exploded: Cumberbatch's Melrose swallows fistfulls of pills, downs whole bottles of whiskey, inhales coke, shoots up heroin with whatever needle he can find – including one that drops in a toilet bowl and looks about as blunt as a nail. While having a cocktail with an old friend in the Drake Hotel, he staggers away in search of a bathroom, then comes face to face with a wall which he attempts to scale. Failing that, he falls flat to the floor and, with one hand over the other, squeaks his way along the highly polished marble.

It's a bravura performance – also a horrifying and hilarious one that has the odd effect of inducing guilt in the witness. Laugh at this? Try not to. There's a long tradition of harrowing junkie performances, like Ewan McGregor in “Trainspotting” or John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” but in just under 60 minutes, Cumberbatch's threatens to top them all. You can nearly observe Cumberbatch's Melrose attempt to break out of his own skin, as the writhing monster just beneath the surface seeks the nearest exit. His body convulses on the floor of his trashed hotel room with such violence that it seems to levitate.

By the second episode – one of two provided to critics – viewers get a glimpse of the genesis of this damage. As Patrick's father, David, Weaving dusts off Agent Smith (from “The Matrix” trilogy) and adds some new flavors. He's a sadist with a waspish tongue who tells his wife he likes her dressed in pink – “it reminds me of your eyes.” This hour is set 20 years earlier, in 1967, and unfolds over the course of one brutal day. With a friend, Anne (Indira Varma), Eleanor leaves their estate in the south of France to pick up another friend at a distant train station. Her absence allows David to sexually assault his young son (played by Sebastian Maltz).

This scene, essentially the pretext for an entire series, could be a dealbreaker for many viewers, possibly most. “Patrick Melrose” is, after all, about the devastation of pedophilia. But to miss “Melrose” means missing a performance unlike any you've ever witnessed. In a note to critics, Cumberbatch says “I've only ever had two roles on my acting bucket list: Patrick Melrose and Hamlet.” Some bucket list, but at least catch the first episode Saturday to see why.

BOTTOM LINE Brilliant performance by a great actor in a desperately grim story.

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