Jagged little pills

Two poisoners' tales revisit Arsenic and Old Lace with differing results

A politician once said that the secret to diplomacy was to know your own mind and make sure your opponent knows it too. The same is true of satire. Since The Last Supper doesn't know its own mind, how can it expect the audience to swallow this poison?

Graham Young (Hugh O'Conor), the murderous teen in The Young Poisoner's Handbook, is not as delightful as the spinsters in Arsenic, but at least he doesn't delude himself into thinking he's making the world a better place by his actions. Instead, Graham poisons for the most prosaic of reasons: to extinguish his rival for a girl's affections, to dispose of his wicked stepmother, or--and this seems to be what really compels him--for the sheer scientific pleasure of concocting the world's first homeopathic recipes for murder.

First-time director Benjamin Ross tells a deliriously wicked, true story about this weird, pathological schoolboy in 1960s Britain, whose fascination with chemistry--and devotion to the scientific method of testing and observing--leads him to ply his hobby on family and friends. Like The Last Supper, The Young Poisoner's Handbook chronicles how misdirected energies, even those bordering on genius, can have sinister results.

Unlike Supper, though, Handbook succeeds in making its protagonist human and sympathetic. Ross doesn't try for mere satire, but aims for something far more surreal. With his walleyed stare--you can always see his entire cornea, and he hardly blinks at all--Graham has the static energy of a wound spring held down forcibly. He spends virtually the whole movie perched on a shaky ledge between sanity and incurable dementia; he'd be better off committing to one course of action rather than suffer the torment of indecision. You might be surprised to find yourself rooting for him to kill--even hoping subconsciously that he won't get caught, while knowing that he will.

O'Conor's interpretation of Graham confirms him as a promising talent. His last significant role was as the young Christie Brown in My Left Foot--a performance equaled in craftsmanship to Daniel Day-Lewis' playing Christie as an adult--and he has since matured magnificently as an actor. He's the center of the action and totes the burden of carrying every scene with strength and clarity of purpose. If the audience didn't identify with him, the movie would be a chore to watch. Instead, even with his pallid skin and bony, slightly off-putting gaze, O'Conor makes Graham seem like the sole survivor of a stagnant culture; his strangeness is a defense mechanism for intolerable complacency.

You come to realize that the crushing boredom of middle-class life in England--exemplified by the painfully wretched "Dickie Boone" TV show that everyone constantly watches--must seem so oppressive to the self-motivated spirit that the only options are murder or suicide. Graham, of course, opts for murder--the imminently more practical option. You have to admit it: There's something admirable in a kid who has the drive to pursue a hobby--any hobby--rather than just give up. That says something, doesn't it?

The Young Poisoner's Handbook. Cinepix. Hugh O'Conor, Anthony Sher. Written by Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross. Directed by Ross. Opens May 3 at the Inwood.

The Last Supper. Sony Pictures. Courtney B. Vance, Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Jonathan Penner, Ron Eldard. Written by Dan Rosen. Directed by Stacy Title. Opens April 26.

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