North Londoner Graham Young was a chemistry wiz. Unfortunately, he took his experiments out of the lab and into the kitchen. As a teen, he used his stepmom as a guinea pig, feeding her toxic substances and monitoring their effects. After nine years of hospitalization and “rehabilitation,” he promptly resumed his old ways, killing eight co-workers with high doses of thallium. Young's methods were quintessentially English — he slipped poison in people's tea. In Benjamin Ross' new film, The Young Poisoner's Handbook, Young's actions become an assault on British banality, from family to factory.
“Poison has a metaphorical resonance,” says Ross, who co-wrote the fact-based film with Jeff Rawle. Some great American films — Noel Black's Pretty Poison; Todd Haynes' Safe — critique society through toxicity, but with female protagonists and environmental themes. Ross' film belongs to a different tradition; in a sense, Graham (played wide-eyed and emotionless by Hugh O'Conor) is a perverse extension of the angry young men in kitchen-sink dramas. Ross agrees: “The '60s setting evokes John Osborne and things like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I grew up watching those films. [Young Poisoner] is a love letter to British cinema.”
A love letter to English cinema means a death threat to England; no other country has such a rich history of films about its own horrors. Close-ups of glowing red liquids and crystalline solids provide Young Poisoner's only moments of beauty; they're contrasted with the hideous, garish Kodachrome schemes of Graham's public life. “The film is like a series of sitcoms,” Ross notes. “I like taking generic TV characters and giving them real pain. You start to believe in them.” This tension between 2-D and 3-D pain, heightened by the acting, verges on misanthropy — whether that's a good or bad thing depends on one's own perspective.
According to Ross, Graham's final murder spree at work changes Are You Being Served? to Are You Being Poisoned?: “Mrs. Slocombe and her pussy — that's real English humor. [The film] takes Mrs. Slocombe, poisons her, and watches her hair fall out.” One of Young Poisoner's most caustic moments is an office party where Graham's co-workers hog blue cake, drink themselves senseless, and grope to the strains of Serge Gainsbourg's cheesy, orgasmic “Je T'Aime.” At such events, “rigid constraints break, and people who've wanted to screw each other suddenly do it on the photocopy machine,” says Ross. “It's an ugly emergence of the dark side of human nature, and it happens in ridiculous settings, with bad pop music, and people drunk on horrible cider, about to spew.”
“The conjunction of that, with vomit and Graham's poison, seemed apt,” he continues. “It's my favorite scene.” It also has personal meaning for Ross: “As an adolescent, 'Je T'Aime' was the closest I could get to an actual female orgasm, so I thought I should repay the debt.” He took special care with the sequence's bilious conclusion. “We had a different recipe each time. One man's vomit is never the same as another man's.” Toilets also play an important role in Young Poisoner. “They're something people spend a lot of time close to,” Ross notes, “and filmmakers don't deal with them. I totally embrace them.”
Young Poisoner is structured like a classical drama; united by Graham's romantic outsider role, the film's three acts provide harsh commentary on the family, the medical establishment, and work. When Graham is first apprehended, Ross wastes no time on court scenes: “What you're looking for in a story is the next interesting thing,” he says. The next interesting thing in Young Poisoner is Graham's relationship with the doctor who “cures” him; like most psychoanalytic bonds, it quickly becomes an exercise in control and projection. Once Graham returns to the outside world, shots of slow-motion dart-throwing in pubs and close-ups of coffee cups decorated with stupid slogans forecast disaster.
Sleepy-looking but quick-witted, Ross is sardonic about his previous cinematic work. His first teen-age effort addressed a familiar topic: mastur-bation. Asked how he wound up doing an apprenticeship at Troma Pictures — home of low-budget trash like Toxic Avenger — he gives a two-word answer: “Bad luck.” At 31, Ross now has the money to pay homage to heroes like Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock, but he's glib about selling his vision to the American public. Recently, he touted Young Poisoner as a “feel-bad” tale in a New York Times interview. “When confused Americans ask why I decided to film Graham's story,” he explains, “I say he's the English Forrest Gump. They understand that — he's paradigmatic in the same way.”
The Young Poisoner's Handbook opens Fri, March 8, at area theaters.