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‘The Young Poisoner’s Handbook’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 05, 1996

Graham didn't always want to rule the world. The notion came over him slowly, while the little monster was mixing one of his special cocktails for Mother. After a few minutes, Mother (Ruth Sheen) will double over in agony and take to her bed, just like so many others around the 14-year-old protagonist of Benjamin Ross's "The Young Poisoner's Handbook."

The movie, which is Ross's first, could have been titled "The Young Hannibal Lecter"; it's about the formative years of a psychopath and future serial killer. But Ross and screenwriter Jeff Rawle don't present Graham's saga—which is based on the true story of a boy in Neasden, England, in the early '60s—as a thriller. Instead, this droll, macabre film is laid out much like a standard Hollywood bio-pic. The potion that Graham (Hugh O'Conor) mixes for his mother is actually one of the early experiments in the long career of a boy genius gone wrong. At one point his mother refers to him as her "little Louis Pasteur"; that is before she wrongly accuses Graham of keeping a stash of nudie magazines.

Some of Graham's other early experiments include putting acid in his sister's eye drops and poisoning the mustard eaten by a friend who was interfering with his courtship of Sue (Samantha Edmonds), a perky blond librarian who slips him the restricted medical books he needs for his work. Actually, Graham's interest in Sue is the only normal impulse he shows. Since his friend is indisposed, Graham takes his place as Sue's date for "The Dickie Boone Show," and the evening goes pretty well until Graham launches into a riff about the effects of decapitation and Sue bolts out the door.

The encounter is reminiscent of the scene in "Taxi Driver" in which Robert De Niro asks Cybill Shepherd out on a date and takes her to a porno film. Graham is as closed off from his feelings and from the "normal" world as Travis Bickle was. But Ross doesn't place his protagonist inside a hallucinatory inferno. Instead, the movie is dry, matter-of-fact, clinical—like Graham himself. There is something missing within Graham, something dead. After dosing his mom, Graham records the slow progress of her degeneration in his notebook with the coolness of a bank clerk.

When he received his first chemistry set, Graham read that Isaac Newton had created a perfect diamond by heating up a particular chemical. And after Graham is imprisoned for his crimes, a psychiatrist renowned for his work with convicts points to this incident as the beginning of the boy's problems. But, though he details the horrors of Graham's stifling home life and shows the relationship between Graham's maladjustment and his sexual insecurity, Ross doesn't attempt to make a literal cause-and-effect connection between these particulars and the boy's killing obsession. Graham is a pure psychopath, without the slightest trace of morality or conscience. But he's not a killer because of his upbringing or anything else; he's a killer, period. Motive is irrelevant.

For about the first half of the film, we're fascinated by Graham and his work, which culminates in the development of what he calls his "Doomsday Weapon." And O'Conor ("My Left Foot") adds to our interest with his combination of blankness and intensity. (He is reminiscent of a very young Dennis Hopper.) But after Graham is arrested for the first time, Ross doesn't seem to have any further insights into his character. For the rest of the film, he shows Graham duplicating his earlier crimes, and the repetition dampens rather than intensifies our response. Ross shows talent and intelligence. This may be his debut, but already the imprint of his sensibility is distinct.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook is not rated.

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