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Good To The Last Drop

By Daily Bruin Staff

February 29, 1996 9:00 pm

Good To The Last Drop

Intense performances, twisted comedy and absurdist humor
highlight director Benjamin Ross’ ‘The Young Poisoner’s
Handbook’

By Dina Gachman

Daily Bruin Contributor

Imagine if "Taxi Driver" and "Dead Ringers" crossed paths. The
result would be a film of beautiful complexity and almost absurdist
horror. This mixture shades British director Benjamin Ross’
disturbing feature debut, "The Young Poisoner’s Handbook."

Not to suggest that Ross’ film merely rehashes classics. It
doesn’t. Ross creates a thoroughly original and effective story
that shares "Dead Ringers’" exploration of genius gone wrong, and
"Taxi Driver’s" view of an individual destroyed by the hypocrisy of
society. But these themes are where the comparisons end.

"The Young Poisoner’s Handbook" is a portrait of British
schoolboy Graham Young (Hugh O’Conor) whose obsession for chemistry
leads him on a quest to create a diamond out of a powder called
Antimony. When this fails, Graham’s quest, and his mind, take
another turn. Repulsed by his phony, shallow family and English
society, Graham is driven to practice his scientific tests on
humans – and the results are deadly.

Ross loosely based the screenplay, which he co-wrote with Jeff
Rawle, on the true story of Graham Young, who was convicted of
murder for chemical experiments similar to those in the film. The
writers fictionalized much of the story (which is told from
Graham’s point of view) adding an almost psychedelic dimension of
dream sequences, warped delusions and frightening realities. The
writing is exceptional, and Graham’s eerily calm narration
intensifies the horror of his descent into madness.

The darkest corners of Graham’s twisted mind are revealed not
only through the writing, but by the powerful, intricate
performance of Irish actor O’Conor ("My Left Foot"). His wide,
unblinking eyes and painfully restrained emotions give the
character the dual appearance of a psychotic killer and a
sensitive, tortured child. O’Conor possesses a startlingly intense
presence on camera. Throughout the film his pale, thin body is
wrapped in a black coat, ironically resembling a sinister lab coat.
And when Graham enters the mental institution, his withered figure
seems to shrink farther and farther into this dark covering.

Ross’ portrayal of the hypocrisy in Graham’s family and of
English institutions reveal his’ talent as a director. He presents
the family in an almost comical, absurd light. The women’s faces
are smeared with blue and pink make-up; the men are harsh, cruel
and abusive. There is a scene where Graham’s stepmother (played by
Ruth Sheen) frantically brushes her teeth to destroy the breath
that her husband says "smells like death." Graham walks in on her
to find that her gums are bleeding, and her mouth dripping blood.
Her expression is pitiful and grotesque. It’s in moments like this
that the director’s perception of human nature comes through. You
get the sense that Graham is not the only one who is disturbed.

The other members of Graham’s family give equally convincing,
though less enigmatic performances – Charlotte Coleman ("Four
Weddings and a Funeral") as the uncaring, petty older sister,
Winnie; and Roger Lloyd Pack as Graham’s detached, abusive
father.

But it is not so much the acting that characterizes "The Young
Poisoner’s Handbook" as a unique creation (with the exception of
O’Conor’s brilliant work), but Ross’ skill as a director. The film
is not perfect – there is some sloppy editing and the music sounds
misplaced at times – but Ross’ vision of a young genius’ disturbed
mind is at once poetic and horrifying. "The Young Poisoner’s
Handbook" should not be passed up. Grade: A

FILM: "The Young Poisoner’s Handbook." Directed by Benjamin
Ross. Starring Hugh O’Conor, Charlotte Coleman, Roger Lloyd Pack,
Ruth Sheen and Antony Sher. Produced by Sam Taylor.

Hugh O’Conor descends into madness in "The Young Poisoner’s
Handbook."

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