There’s something about Benedict Cumberbatch. Despite an air of high-society pretentiousness, the British actor manages to somehow imbue each of the characters he portrays with a relatable spirit.
From his turn as Sherlock Holmes in Steven Moffat’s 2010 BBC series that propelled him into stardom, his delicately wounded Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, to Khan in Star Trek: Into the Darkness, to his sold-out-in-minutes production of Hamlet at London’s Barbican in 2015 and more recently Doctor Stephen Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he has inspired fans to obsess over his striking face, tall slender body, and penchant for slapstick humor.
All three of those traits are put to use in Patrick Melrose, a Showtime mini-series that compresses Edward St. Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels into a five episodes. While we’ve certainly seen stories that satirize society’s upper class and upend their addiction to manners to great comic effect, this series hinges on a dazzling performance by Cumberbatch that reminds us why he’s become one of the internet’s most obsessive riddles of the past eight years.
Each episode is devoted to one of the five Patrick Melrose novels and sweeps across different eras in his life—from New York in the 1980s to the South of France in the 1960s and Britain in the early 2000s. A traumatic incident of a sexual nature propels Patrick into a heroin addiction that spans years and resurfaces after the death of his father. Swapping the order of the first two books lends mystery to incident itself and sets Patrick on a redemptive arc of recovery rather than letting us watch him slide into addiction.
The series whips back and forth from different times in Patrick’s life, with Cumberbatch playing most of those time periods (except for fantastic young actor Sebastian Maltz, who portrays Patrick during the incident). Cumberbatch delivers strung-out addiction, remorseful addict in recovery, sociopathic upper-class asshole, lothario, and tortured victim from scene to scene and it’s easily the best role that he’s ever had. Sherlock played to his strengths, but Cumberbatch has said before that this role and Hamlet were the two he’d longed to play as an actor.
It’s palpable in a scene where he takes quaaludes and loses all control of his motor functions, sliding across a floor and down a wall as he attempts to flee from an interrogative dinner. Cumberbatch’s full use of his physical body is necessary for the scene and it’s perhaps why his body is so intensely scrutinized by his fanbase. More so than an actor dripping with sexuality, he’s an actor whose physicality feels as if it is summoning you to analyze it, decode it. Sherlock was his overnight success and it makes sense because he engenders mystery merely from his looks.
A 2016 Vanity Fair profile summarized the obsession neatly: “Being Benedict Cumberbatch means living under a magnifying glass, like a fingerprint under Sherlock’s gaze. Nearly everything he does is captured, catalogued, and obsessed over by an ever widening rabble of fans. Some call themselves Cumberbitches. Or, slightly more P.C. (but not much), Cumberbabes. Perhaps it’s his accentuated Britishness—that Dickensian name, that Brontëan pallor—that renders him a kind of imaginary dress-up doll, a thinking woman’s fetish object. If Laurence Olivier had lived in the age of Tumblr, he might have been the ‘Internet’s boyfriend,’ too.” In response, Cumberbatch told the magazine, “I’m glad I’m bringing a ray of sunshine to an otherwise dull day, being imagined eating fritters shirtless. But, I don’t know, it makes me giggle. I don’t look at myself in the mirror and go, ‘Yeah, absolutely! I see what they’re saying!’ I see all my faults and everything that I’ve always seen as my faults.”
This isn’t to say that he’s only some Barnum and Bailey act. He also has a psychedelically pop sensibility. The drug-haze scenes are wildly over the top, like a blend of Charles Bukowski and Inherent Vice. It’s reminiscent of the bright, trippy world that Cumberbatch dove into in Doctor Strange. It’s what makes Patrick Melrose so wonderful. St. Aubyn’s books use humor and satire to describe how a broken man puts himself back together. Only a pliable actor like Cumberbatch could stretch himself apart like Mr. Fantastic in the role and still put himself back together again. It’s a role he was born to play and the series is the better for it.