The Young Poisoner’s Handbook (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Graham (Hugh O’Conor) has a fascination for chemistry because understanding the subject reveals every day mysteries that most people take for granted. But his passion is of no value in his family. He lives with his father (Roger Lloyd-Pack), stepmother (Ruth Sheen), and sister (Charlotte Coleman), all of whom consider Graham a pest who messes around with their belongings. In order to become a great scientist, Graham figures he needs an experiment that will set him apart from the rest. This plan involves introducing poison to the greatest number of people in a public place–a mass murder. But first, he needs a guinea pig: his stepmother.
“The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” written by Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross, deals with its grim subject with confident joviality. What I loved about it is its consistency in challenging us to laugh, albeit uncomfortably, at the many afflictions that Graham causes to everyone around him yet keeping in mind that there is a sadness and tragedy in his genius.
His first poison of choice is antimony sulfide. It is a good poison because its symptoms are typical. Doctors often mistake its effects for treatable intestinal disorders so they assure the sick persons’ families that their loved ones’ condition is nothing to worry about. Graham’s stepmother is far from pleasant with her stepson so when she is made to suffer through vomiting and having irritable bowel syndrome, the scenes are very amusing. It does not come off cruel because the material focuses on what makes the young scientist tick through his actions, its repercussions, and his responses; his delusions of grandeur and intellectual superiority; and what he is willing to do or sacrifice in order to achieve his goals.
Graham may be lacking in conscience but no can deny that he is exemplary in observing, taking notes, and noticing trends. As he observes others, we observe him. Those beady eyes command an electric alacrity when he notices that his experiment is working. Meanwhile, our eyes widen from the increasingly horrific implications of his experiments.
Then Graham moves on to using thallium, commonly used to kill insects and rats. It is an even better poison than antimony sulfide because its effects vary depending on the person. But one thing people infected with thallium have in common is eventual alopecia. In charge of delivering medicine to his unsuspecting stepmother, he sprinkles just enough to push her into a catatonic state. Despite the dark comedy, we are aware of his nature.
The next third of the film introduces the question of whether Graham, after several tests indicates that he is a psychotic, can be rehabilitated. During his time in the mental hospital, he manipulates people to gain freedom. Interestingly, for him, freedom does not necessarily mean a chance to start over like most people who genuinely feel bad about the things they have done. Graham has an obsession and he needs to scratch an itch. His purpose is not to reconnect, make amends, or attempt to lead a normal life. In his words, he has to make thallium “tasteless, orderless, and untraceable.”
Directed by Benjamin Ross, “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” is macabre, clever, twisted, some would label it “sick,” and based on a true story. And I watched spellbound.