Review: ‘The Young Poisoner’s Handbook’

An expressive piece of grotesquerie, "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" takes a darkly comic look at a sinister British lad who, in the early '60s, pursued "a career as a poisoner."

An expressive piece of grotesquerie, “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” takes a darkly comic look at a sinister British lad who, in the early ’60s, pursued “a career as a poisoner.” Based on a true story and stylistically lively and cuttingly satiric about established norms of British life and medical practice, pic will appeal to younger audiences internationally who like their entertainment rude and impudent, giving it a good shot at cult status in the U.S. and even better prospects in Europe. Rather sour tone and nastiness of the story will turn off more general auds, however.

Fourteen-year-old chemistry genius Graham Young (Hugh O’Conor) lives with his father, stepmother and sister, all of whom are caricatured to the nth degree of hideousness, so much the better to make Graham’s malevolent schemes more palatable. The dispassionate youngster slowly murders his stepmother with poisoned chocolates and a steady dose of doctored medicine.

After poisoning his uncle as well, Graham is finally apprehended and convicted of murder, landing him in a hospital for the criminally insane. There, psychopathic specialist Dr. Zeigler (Antony Sher) believes that Graham’s outstanding intellect makes him a prime candidate for salvation.

Within several years the parole board, convinced that Graham is now cured, reintroduces him to society, where in short order he resumes his “career” on a wider scale than ever before.

Ross and co-scenarist Jeff Rawle have attempted to present this insidious tale as much as possible from Graham’s p.o.v. And in laying the disagreeable tale out in such supple, tonally consistent fashion, Ross displays considerable talent for waspish caricature, speedy point-making and sustaining focus. To the extent that one of the film’s major goals was clearly to make the viewer see the world from Graham’s perspective, the picture is an undoubted success.

Still, given that Graham Young was a deeply disturbed fellow, there is something increasingly unpleasant about spending time inside his head, and it’s debatable whether the film curdles or runs out of steam first. Well before fadeout, many might feel they’ve had well enough of this particular demented soul.

Acting is all at the service of Ross’ cartoon-like approach, which is to say that it works within the established stylistic bounds. Technical work is also solid, with special kudos to Hubert Taczanowski’s very mobile camerawork. A fair amount of the musical score is lifted directly from Walter Carlos’ work for “A Clockwork Orange,” without apparent credit.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook



A Mass/Sam Taylor production in co-production with Kinowelt and Haut et Court with the participation of the Bavarian Film Fund/British Screen/Eurimages/Pandora (International sales: Pandora Cinema, Paris). Produced by Taylor. Executive producers, Caroline Hewitt, Eric Stonestrom, Cameron McCracken. Co-producer, Rainer Kolmel. Directed by Benjamin Ross. Screenplay, Jeff Rawle, Ross.


Camera (Metrocolor), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Anne Sopel; music, Robert Lane, Frank Strobel; production design, Maria Djurkovic; art direction, Mark Stevenson, Matthias Kammermeier; costume design, Stewart Meacham; sound (Dolby), Eckhard Kuchenbecker; French co-producer, Carole Scotta; associate producer, David Redman; line producer, Peter McAleese; assistant director, Max Keene; casting, Michelle Guish. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (noncompeting), Jan. 20, 1995 . Running time: 106 min.


Graham - Hugh O'Conor Dr. Zeigler - Antony Sher Molly - Ruth Sheen Fred - Roger Lloyd Pack Winnie - Charlotte Coleman Dennis - Paul Stacey Sue - Samantha Edmonds
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