It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"I was very young when I discovered I had a gift for chemistry,'' the hero of "The Young Poisoner's Handbook'' tells us. "Life at home was a stale affair.'' His dreary London suburb of Neasden crouches beneath a sullen sky, and his family sits stupefied before the telly. But up in his room, Graham Young lives in another world entirely, a world of brightly colored chemicals and arcane instructions, and the exciting possibility that a test tube might blow up at any moment.
So begins the story of a young man whose bizarre secret life engendered one of the most famous British criminal cases of the century. Graham Young fatally poisoned his stepmother, caused many others to become ill, was sentenced to prison, bamboozled the prison psychiatrist, was set free, and went in for experiments on a larger scale when he was unwisely given the responsibility for preparing the tea at his new job.
Graham is a very sick young man. (In real life he was sicker--a neo-Nazi with dreams of genocide.) But "The Young Poisoner's Handbook'' is not a grim record of crime but a wickedly satirical view of ambition in a gifted, if misguided, youth. Graham is played by Hugh O'Conor, seen in 1989 as the young Christy Brown in "My Left Foot.'' O'Conor has now grown into a gangly teenager who makes a convincing nerd as he hunches in his upstairs room, making careful entries in his notebooks. "Every king needs a queen--and I had mine,'' Graham tells us, after a girl at the library allows him to check out restricted books on poisons. The friendly local chemist allows him to buy chemicals best not trusted to young hands. At home, things remain grim: "Have you been using the cups and saucers again for your bloody experiments?'' his father asks, although actually it is his sister who has been mixing up face creams.
Graham's stepmother (Ruth Sheen) finds nude pin-ups in the house, and punishes Graham by scrubbing him raw in the bath and burning his chemistry set. Graham has his revenge as his stepmother grows ill. Medicine is prescribed, and Graham adds a little touch of this and that until the poor woman has been reduced to a bald skeleton. He makes careful records of his experiments in his journals, with the detachment and intellectual curiosity of a born scientist.