The Young Poisoner's Handbook

on February 23, 1996 by Ray Greene
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   A putrid, misanthropic "black comedy" based on real-life events, "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" has pretensions to being a sort of true-life version of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," even borrowing classical music cues and entire, only slightly altered sequences from that earlier work. But despite a high degree of technical proficiency (particularly from cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski), "Poisoner" serves mainly as a demonstration of why filmmakers of Kubrick's caliber are so few and far between. Say what one will about the alienated world his films inhabit, Kubrick isn't just an empty stylist, he's a brilliant interpreter of difficult material. "Poisoner" director Benjamin Ross, on the other hand, applies a glossy surface to a repugnant subject matter which he seems to only dimly understand, in what plays like the arrogant belief that the dissonance between style and content alone will be enough to elevate his film to a distinctive level.
   In fact, "Poisoner's" openly derivative "Clockwork Orange" analogies indicate how far from the mark Ross and his co-writer Jeff Rawle have drifted in their approach to their story. Like "Clockwork's" Alex, "Poisoner's" Graham Young (Hugh O'Connor) is a young man with a defective psyche, incapable of distinguishing right from wrong except as abstract intellectual concepts that belong to a social belief system in which he does not share. Graham's scientific obsession with chemicals takes a dark twist when he decides to slowly poison his stepmother, ostensibly in the name of scientific experimentation (he makes copious notes about her downward spiral in his notebook, hence the title).
   After his stepmother's death, Graham is caught and imprisoned when he tries to extend his studies by poisoning his father. Like "Clockwork's" Alex, he undergoes a kind of psychological miracle cure while in jail. But upon release, the darker side of his obsessions begins to exert a familiar influence, particularly when he comes to be put in charge of serving his factory co-workers their afternoon tea... The makers of "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" seem to think that by emphasizing the similarities between Graham's story and the Anthony Burgess novel Kubrick drew upon for his fictional saga, they can arrive at an analysis of the same issues (roughly, free will vs. society's need to protect itself from homicidal personalities) that Kubrick so successfully examined. But there is a critical difference between "Clockwork's" Alex and "Poisoner's" Graham, one which is soft-pedaled, but nonetheless sabotages Ross' movie. Where Alex was an amoral thug, Young is a living, breathing embodiment of the scientific method; he kills in the name of the same scientific morality which is applied to his own problems by the prison psychologist, which is what makes him more than a match for the "talking cure."
   If Ross had chosen to emphasize his protagonist's interior obsessions instead of dwelling on their stomach-churning effects on his victims, he might have given us a film with a distinctive (if twisted) slant on some important issues. Graham's conflict is really with the totalitarian pragmatist in his head, after all, not with the bureaucracy that imprisons and "cures" him. But "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" is too busy expending its creative energies on a combination of homage and gruesome make-up effects to be anything more complex than a below-average horror movie a toxin for the eyes, ear, brain and soul. Avoid.    Starring Hugh O'Conor, Antony Sher and Ruth Sheen. Directed by Benjamin Ross. Written by Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross. Produced by Sam Taylor. A CFP release. Black comedy. Unrated. Running time: 90 min.
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