Once, long ago, there was a country where the people ate such bad food, watched such inane television shows, and wore such dreary clothing that they all deserved to die. And unto them came a savior, one Graham Young. Graham had a way with thallium, a highly toxic heavy metal. And so he set out to deliver his useless family and hopeless co-workers from the burden of their grim existences.
That, at least, is the spin that British director Benjamin Ross attempts to give The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, which is based on an actual case but cautions that it features a mix of historical and fictional characters. Ross, who wrote the script with Jeff Rawle, argues that his first feature owes its distinctiveness to its strict identification with its coolly homicidal protagonist. Big deal. Recently, Hollywood has identified all over the place with killers, to the point of providing a rape-cam view of a sex-murder in Strange Days. What distinguishes Handbook, in fact, is its use of the period defense: The ’60s, the film tacitly argues, were so tacky that murder was an understandable response.
Ross’ “mythological” version of Graham, like the real one, became fascinated by chemistry as a boy in postwar north London. Like the young heroines of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which Handbook resembles in some respects, Graham (My Left Foot’s Hugh O’Conor) lives in a world of his own, where the possibility of transforming antimony into diamonds is far more compelling than The Dickie Boone Show, a favorite on the family telly. Graham’s poisonings are presented as cool, detached, and scientific—he keeps graphs of his patients’ inevitable declines—yet they’re provoked by the usual adolescent resentments: He gives a bad stomachache to a schoolmate who makes a date with the girl Graham fancies, poisons the eye drops of his querulous older sister, Winnie (Charlotte Coleman), and finally sends his stepmother (High Hopes’ Ruth Sheen) to an early grave after she punishes him for a collection of soft porn that actually belongs to his father (Roger Lloyd Pack).
Arrested after his stepmother’s death, Graham is sent to an asylum where rehabilitation is not a priority. There his intelligence captures the attention of a psychiatrist, Dr. Zeigler (Genghis Cohen’s Antony Sher). Zeigler wants to explore Graham’s dreams, but the boy doesn’t remember any. Realizing that the doctor is his only ticket out of the institution, Graham purloins his wardmate’s nightmares, much to Zeigler’s pleasure (and the mate’s pain). Eventually, Graham convinces the doctor and the parole board that he’s a changed man.
The only thing that’s changed, however, is Britain. Released eight years after his crime, Graham finds himself in Swinging London, whose music and apparel Handbook considers just as inane as the stuff they replaced. A fierce nerd with intense eyes and a buttoned-up fashion sense, Graham is even less in sync with the new age of license than he was with the old repression. (If only he’d spent another few years in treatment, Graham would have emerged just in time to be Elvis Costello.)
This is the debut feature for Ross, a Londoner who attended NYU film school and did a few odd jobs in the American fringe-film biz before returning to Britain. (Appropriately, his first credit was special-effects assistant on The Toxic Avenger.) He shows exceptional skill as director, assuredly sustaining the film’s bleakly sardonic mood. The script, however, is less compelling. The final psychedelic flourishes are a flimsy excuse for a narrative payoff, and the asylum sequence—particularly the relationship between Graham and Zeigler—is unconvincing. The psychiatrist is presented as savvy enough to recognize instantly a manufactured dream, but too clueless to discern faked contrition.
A British-German-French coproduction whose interiors were shot in Munich, Handbook is nonetheless impeccably located in the suburban London of the ’60s and early ’70s. The movie presents the period through its pop music, a typical enough gambit except that the filmmakers have carefully selected novelty hits that have aged badly. From the Marathons’ 1961 consumer rhapsody “Peanut Butter” to Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s heavy-breathing 1969 hit, “J’Aime Moi Non Plus,” the music is mostly as embarrassing as the color scheme is bleak. Is the point that the ’60s were a fraud, or only that the working classes didn’t get them? Either way, the film’s black humor is less liberating than patronizing.CP