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Shifting Timeframes and Tones: ‘Patrick Melrose’

Explaining his visual approach to the series, director Edward Berger says he wanted each episode to "look different and have its own visual style to represent the psychological development of that character and to reflect the decade."

Based on the books by Edward St. Aubyn, written by David Nicholls and directed by Edward Berger, the Sky/Showtime series Patrick Melrose depicts a chapter in the life of the troubled central character with each episode, from his abusive childhood to his drug-addled adulthood.

“Each hour-long installment adapts one of St. Aubyn’s novels, and follows the conceit of the books in telling Patrick’s story by illustrating one day at a time, sometimes years and continents apart from each other,” says Sonia Saraiya.

Episode one opens as the twenty something Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) flies to New York to collect his father’s ashes, and goes on to spend a drug-crazed 24 hours. Episode two, set in the South of France in the ’60s, takes place in the family’s chateau where the sadistic and terrifying David Melrose (Hugo Weaving) dominates the lives of his son Patrick and his rich and unhappy American mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). 

Episode three offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery, and episode four shows the now-married Patrick as a father, struggling with child rearing, adultery and his mother’s desire for assisted suicide. Finally, in episode five Patrick tries to solve the puzzle of his parents, and gropes towards tentative recovery.

“Each installment takes on a different style and tone, too,” Saraiya continues. “It’s a delicate balance of subject matter and style; a drug binge in 1982 is quite different from a horrific trauma in 1967. But Patrick Melrose strikes a gorgeous pose, both within each richly considered chapter and among the chapters considered as a whole.

“The episodes inform each other, but in unexpectedly complex ways; a scene remembered one way, in 1982, takes on a different angle in 1990. Certain details jump to life in 1967, and then are buried until 1990. With delicate touches of overarching coherence, these disparate parts are nudged together into a multi-layered whole.” To read the full article, click here

Explaining his visual approach to the series, Berger says he wanted each episode to “look different and have its own visual style to represent the psychological development of that character and to reflect the decade.”

Berger was careful about “finding the tone and balance for each film. I wanted them all to be very different and develop from this fractured schizophrenic personality to this very simple end where he just calls his wife and walks out his bedsit door into a liberated future… hopefully. To chart that development, develop a new language in each film that slowly calms down with him and becomes more fluid. And then to show how each decade and period is different.”

The biggest challenge in the production, confirms executive producer Michael Jackson, was “telling the story in a truthful way across a long passage of time and making sure the different time periods and geographies are captured appropriately—from the south of France to New York in the 1980s to contemporary Britain.”

“Memories or images that briefly bubble up in one episode are revisited and explored in another,” reports K.S.C. “Different periods have complementary but distinct looks. A traumatic childhood memory of a holiday in the south of France when Patrick is raped by his father is washed in an over-ripe mid-century palette of fig-purples, greens and pinks. A New York interlude in the 1980s when Patrick has to go and pick up his father’s remains is more sharply contrasted, with sharp jags of taxi-cab yellow.” To read the full article, click here.

“It’s a very unconventional show in that every episode has a different look, feel and tone,” Nicholls adds, “but I have tried to thread the characters through all five episodes so you get a sense of ensemble.

“We wanted to remain faithful to novels that were never intended to work as a TV show,” he continues. “Imagine pitching a show where the central character disappears for episode two, that leaps back and forth through time and locations; it takes a leap of faith. But I’ve loved the challenge and submerging myself in that world, and what has kept it exciting is this extraordinarily rich central character—fierce and vicious sometimes, then vulnerable and sympathetic at others, but always brilliantly witty and self-aware.”