For 20 years, the English author Edward St Aubyn has spat out a series of beautifully written, poisonously bitter books. Patrick Melrose, the writer’s damaged protagonist, drifts angrily from abused child to desperate heroin addict to permanently disappointed husband. The books deserve their acclaim, but nothing about them cries out for cinematic adaptation. Aside from anything else, their appeal has much to do with the authorial voice.
Gerard Fox, adapting the fourth of the Melrose sequence, gets past that last problem by having the always mellifluous Tom Hollander read out large chunks of the text as voiceover. It’s a mistake. But Mother’s Milk is far from a total washout. Jack Davenport is well cast as Patrick and the late Margaret Tyzack is touching as his frightened, ageing mother.
Set in Provence, the film finds the hero fuming as mum plots to hand over the family’s holiday residence to a new age Irish conman (Adrian Dunbar, excellent). Returning to old habits, Patrick sublimates his rage into casual adultery and deeply committed alcoholism.
On paper, it’s a little easier to put up with the sheer wretchedness of the characters. Everybody is loaded but everybody still feels hard done by. The rapier-sharp barbs add energising, pungent malignity to the drama. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these people, but you might enjoy listening to them squabble from the other side of a fence.
Domestic readers who felt St Aubyn’s portrayal of Seamus Dorke, the Irish blarney merchant, was just the teensiest bit racist will be relieved to hear that Dunbar sands off some of the “begorrahs”. But Mother’s Milk still sets the teeth on edge in effective fashion.