"I was very young when I discovered a gift for chemistry," says Graham Young (Hugh O'Connor), an English lad with wide, innocent eyes and a commitment to the scientific method. After an experiment with the effects of antimony sulfide on a friend who displeased him, Graham decides that further, more complete experiments are necessary. "I had decided what directions my scientific career would take, and there would be no turning back." So at about 13 years of age, he embarks on the slow poisoning of his stepmother, which, after taking meticulous notes, he brings to a conclusion with a few doses of thallium. "I had discovered my metier," Graham says. "Thallium was to be my life's work." He seeks to discover a form of thallium which is odorless, tasteless and colorless, and where a drop or two will be fatal. He also moves on to his father. "Being a good poisoner involves remaining undetected," he observes. "Becoming a famous one would seem to demand being caught."
At 14 he becomes famous, his father survives, and he is judged to be an incurable psychopath. He is placed in a mental institution for life. There he meets Dr. Ernest Zeigler (Antony Sher), a prison psychiatrist who sees through Graham's initial attempts at manipulation and recognizes a very smart young man who, Zeigler believes, can be salvaged. And salvage Graham Young he does, who after years in the asylum is finally released, cured. Graham takes a job in a factory doing stockwork and helping to prepare tea for the tea breaks. And one evening he discovers a cabinet full of chemicals...including thallium. In the weeks that follow Graham rediscovers his passion for chemistry and his commitment to the scientific method. A couple of people die and a whole group of his coworkers come close to before he is found out. Back to prison he goes, where he eventually dies. This is all based on a true story.
This movie, in my view, is a terrific dead-pan black comedy. The first and last thirds are marvelous and fascinating to watch. The middle, while Graham is in the asylum, gets a bit serious. Graham is taken on his own terms in the movie, utterly serious, utterly committed to his calling, tracking his doses, noting the effects, estimating the time of death for those he will finish out. He observes with a clinical detachment which is amusing and unsettling. He shows no remorse because he doesn't know what remorse is. Hugh O'Connor does a wonderful job as Graham. He looks like a choir boy with a sincere stare.
The movie, probably unsurprisingly, was barely seen in the U.S and didn't do much better in Britain. Even with the film's slower middle, I enjoyed it a lot. The DVD looks just fine.