Patrick Melrose | reviewed by Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | November 2021 | www.scene4.com

The Indiscreet Charm
 of the Aristocracy

Patrick Melrose

Miles David Moore

    "Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me.  They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you are born rich, it is difficult to understand.  They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.  Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are."

This famous quote, which begins F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Rich Boy," remains the best encapsulation of the damage that inherited wealth inflicts on human souls. Many American writers have explored this theme; the latest is Anderson Cooper, writing non-fiction from an insider's view, in his new book, Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, co-written with the novelist Katherine Howe.  However, to learn about the effects of inherited wealth compounded with the effects of inherited titles, we must turn to British authors. 

The roll call of British novelists, playwrights and screenwriters who have limned, and sometimes assassinated, the lives and characters of monarchs, nobles and landed gentry is too long to present here.  Among living writers in this category, the most popular is Julian Fellowes, who won popularity by watering down the sulfuric acid of Gosford Park to the lukewarm tea of Downton Abbey.  Pandering far less to sentimentalists, Peter Morgan created a nuanced and thoughtful portrait of the House of Windsor in The Queen, in which Elizabeth II, played by Helen Mirren, dealt with the crisis her family faced immediately after the death of Princess Diana.  Morgan parlayed this into the four seasons (so far) of The Crown, a complex and enthralling story of how monarchy affects both those born to it and those who live under it.  The royals and their aristocratic friends are soft where commoners are hard, cynical where commoners are trustful.  Everyone suffers as a result, but the upper class has its money and privileges to cushion the pain and dull any negative thoughts.  The Queen herself—played in the first two seasons by Claire Foy and in the second two by Olivia Colman—thinks a great deal about her station in life and what it means, but never questions her right to be there.

Princess Margaret—played first by Vanessa Kirby and then by Helena Bonham Carter in The Crown—appears as a character in Some Hope, the third of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, and also the third episode of the Patrick Melrose miniseries written by David Nicholls and directed by Edward Berger.  Some Hope takes place on the estate of Sonny Gravesend, a sub-Wodehousian peer, at his fortieth birthday party.  Princess Margaret is one of the guests; in the novel and miniseries (where she is played by Harriet Walter), she does not come off well.  Neither do Sonny or most of the other guests.

"These are the sort of people who were around during my childhood," says Patrick Melrose (played in the miniseries by Benedict Cumberbatch).  "Hard dull people who seemed quite sophisticated but are in fact as ignorant as swans."

"They're the last Marxists," answers Patrick's best friend Johnny Hall (played in the miniseries by Prasanna Puwanarajah).  "The last people who believe class is a total explanation. Long after that doctrine has been abandoned in Moscow and Peking it will continue to flourish under the marquees of England."

This is as pertinent an entry as any into the world of Patrick Melrose.  St. Aubyn's Melrose novels are highly autobiographical, which makes us feel sympathy for St. Aubyn and admiration for his rising above a hideous early life.  The five novels—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last—tell the story of Melrose's life from childhood to middle age.  Never Mind and Bad News are the most harrowing of the novels.  Never Mind portrays five-year-old Patrick at the mercy of his abusive father David, a disinherited dilettante, and solipsistic mother Eleanor, an American trust-fund baby, at their villa in the South of France.  (There is a scene in Never Mind that will cause some readers to put the book down forever; I urge you to stay with it.)  Bad News presents Patrick, now in his early twenties, in New York to collect the ashes of the newly dead David.  A suicidal drunk and heroin addict, Patrick uses the occasion as a weekend debauch to celebrate his liberation from his hated father.  Or is he liberated?


Some Hope finds Patrick recently out of rehab, divested of his addictions but not his anger, disgusted by the profligacy and cruelty of his social circle.  Mother's Milk and At Last, published more than a decade after the first three books, portray Patrick at a painful crossroads in his life. The former novel shows Patrick as a husband and father, anguished at the prospect of Eleanor disinheriting him in favor of a bogus New Age guru, and at the thought that he might warp his two young sons the way his parents warped him.  The latter takes place during and just after Eleanor's funeral, in which all the threads of Patrick's past life converge, leading to an unexpectedly hopeful end.

This provides a thumbnail synopsis of the Melrose novels, but not the books' exhilarating combination of anarchic behavior and aristocratic privilege, presented in the most finely honed prose.  It's as if Evelyn Waugh and William S. Burroughs collaborated—especially in the more drug-fueled passages of Bad News. A few of the characters, such as Chilly Willy the drug dealer, are Beat types, but most are straight out of Waugh as his most mordant. 

St. Aubyn's portrayal of David Melrose in Never Mind is one of the great portraits in English literature of a narcissistic monster.  Ian Parker, in his 2014 New Yorker profile of St. Aubyn, noted that St. Aubyn describes two types of snobbery—aspirational, "driven by the illusion that access to power or privilege will make you more powerful or privileged," and contemptuous, "an assumption that those outside your tribe can be treated as if not fully human."  David is emphatically of the second type.  When we first see him, he is engaging the heavily laden family housekeeper (she is carrying laundry in the book, china in the miniseries) in a protracted, pointless conversation, simply to enjoy her discomfort.  This prepares us for the sadism David unleashes later in the book.  "I do like you in pink," David tells Eleanor at one point, in front of guests. "It matches your eyes."  As for David's behavior toward Patrick, you will have to discover that for yourself.


Already devastated by David's unremitting cruelty, Patrick is further wounded by the revelation that his main purpose in Eleanor's life was as a buffer between her and David.  "The deeper truth that he had been a toy in the sadomasochistic relationship between his parents was not, until now, something he could bear to contemplate," St. Aubyn writes in At Last.  In that book, Patrick contemplates his final crisis: how, in the absence of any positive parental guidance, to be a good father and a good man.  There is a parallel between Patrick's dilemma and that faced by Elizabeth II in The Crown: first when she discovers that her Uncle David, the Duke of Windsor, was a Nazi collaborator, and later during the Aberfan disaster, in which more than a hundred children were killed by an avalanche of coal slag.  How could Elizabeth be not only a good queen, but a good woman?  Patrick's anguish, however, is much more personal, albeit borne just as strongly of a life of privilege.

As vivid as most of the events are in the Melrose novels, the books presented a daunting challenge to any filmmaker.  So much of their impact is based on the interior monologues of the characters, and on the power and beauty of St. Aubyn's prose.  Berger and Nicholls condense each novel into a one-hour teleplay, five hours in all. Major characters are excised or relegated to walk-ons.  Berger and Nicholls create some scenes and situations for dramatic purposes that are generally felicitous, but don't quite make up for what is lost.

Nevertheless, the miniseries is well worth seeing.  It looks marvelous,
thanks to photographer James Friend and production designer Tom Burton.  The stately houses and luxury hotels are suitably envy-inducing, and the scenes shot in Provence evoke Cezanne and Van Gogh.  Also, the dialogue that survives the condensation rings with St. Aubyn's authentic, acidulous tang.


Above all, Patrick Melrose succeeds as a tour de force for Cumberbatch, who was also one of the series' executive producers.  Patrick Melrose was long a dream role for Cumberbatch, and he makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.  Berger and Nicholls reverse the order of the first two stories, starting with Bad News, which makes sense dramatically but also creates a showcase for the sheer bravura of Cumberbatch's hallucinatory meltdown in a New York hotel suite.  His ability to play multiple anguished scenes is a given; so is his ability to deliver a witty line with a sting on its end, recalling such past masters as James Mason and George Sanders.  What truly elevates his performance is his projection of wounded intelligence—the sorrow of a decent man trapped in a society ruled by bullies and fools. 

The ensemble cast of Patrick Melrose is similarly excellent. It was a stroke of genius to cast Hugo Weaving, the villain of the Matrix movies, as David.  That air of mysterious menace pervades his performance, and he too possesses the ability to draw blood with a witty remark, which is essential to playing David. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a perfect Eleanor, the archetypal Poor Little Rich Girl, who aspires to be a good person but can only define goodness through a fog of narcissism.  Also notable are Holliday Grainger as Bridget, a middle-class girl who marries into the aristocracy to her ultimate regret; Jessica Raine as Julia, a woman who reappears regularly in Patrick's life; Indira Varma as Anne, a friend of Eleanor's who is appalled by her haphazard approach to life and motherhood; and Anna Madeley as Mary, Patrick's wife, who acts as the voice of reason while her husband relives his childhood traumas.  Such sterling character actors as Blythe Danner, John Standing and Celia Imrie make welcome appearances , but a true standout is Pip Torrens as the egregious Nicholas Pratt, hothouse flower of the British upper class.  Acknowledging nothing beyond his own sense of entitlement, Pratt is the sort of man who looks to David Melrose as a role model.  Pratt's ultimate fate provides a conclusion not only to the series, but to an entire era of Patrick's life.


Readers and audiences whose interest in British nobility begins and ends with the Crawley family are best advised to stay away from both the Patrick Melrose novels and the miniseries.  However, those who want to read or watch something more real, more profound, and more moving should check them out immediately.  In Patrick Melrose, Edward St. Aubyn created a character who recovers not only from his addictions, but from his upbringing and his social class. Patrick, for all his bad behavior, is a lovable character, and one strongly relevant to the 21st century.

The Patrick Melrose novels are available wherever books are sold.  The miniseries is available from platforms including Showtime (which first aired it in 2018) and Amazon Prime.  I watched it on DVD produced by Acorn Media and rented from Netflix.

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Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C.reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2021 Miles David Moore
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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