VOD film review: One Hour Photo
Ivan Radford | On 19, Aug 2017
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Dylan Smith, Clark Gregg
Watch One Hour Photo online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“Like most things, there’s far more to it than meets the eye.” That’s Sy Parrish (Williams) in One Hour Photo, talking about the art of developing a roll of film – something that some people believe can be easily mastered by anyone. Sy’s a proud man, who takes care and pleasure in his work. He’s the kind of man who longs for the days of old-fashioned film stock, who looks at the rise of digital media with fear. Fear of becoming obsolete. Fear of losing a purpose. Fear of losing a chance to pore over other people’s snaps.
That’s what One Hour Photo manages to capture with a frightening realism: the tangible intimacy that photos bring to our lives. Cameras and photographers have long been a favourite theme for filmmakers, playing on notions of voyeurism, hunting, surveillance and evidence. One Hour Photo, though, dives into the grubby physicality of photography: the fact that when you have a set of pictures developed by someone else, they insert themselves, unseen, in the middle of them, putting their fingerprints all over the negatives.
For Sy, that’s particularly true with the Yorkin family. He’s been processing their photos for years, giving their boy, Jake (Dylan Smith), a free disposable camera for his birthday, upscaling wife Nina’s (Connie Nielsen) order to a superior size, and always printing off a spare copy… for himself. That goes into his private collection on the living room wall, in a house that’s empty save for himself.
It’s a bizarre relationship that is arguably no longer relevant in an age of smartphones and social media, but it’s credit to Robin Williams that “Sy the photo guy” still feels hauntingly relevant. Creeping slowly into their lives, both in his mind and in reality, he’s a quietly unsettling character, who never misses a chance to bump into them by accident, quiz them on their afternoon plans, or buy their youngest family member a toy.
It’s a masterful performance by the late Williams, who shuns his usual, exuberant comic persona for a withdrawn, melancholic performance that is underplayed to point of zero artifice. He’s so underplayed, in fact, that you almost don’t notice how he gradually steps over the unspoken social boundaries we take for granted: he spies in Nina’s bag to find out what book she’s reading (so he can pretend later to be reading it too), he talks to Jake in the park, and, in one ominous scene, turns their camera on himself to take perhaps cinema’s first on-screen selfie.
Director Mark Romanek channels Williams’ lonely intensity into every aspect of the movie, from the soundtrack that buzzes with the hum of the overhead lights to the way that he lingers on close-ups of Sy’s hands at work, or his smile, slightly too forced but never reaching his eyes. Romanek also helmed Never Let Me Go, and there’s a fragile splintering at the heart of both, which he uses to build a shocked, shocking atmosphere.
The repetitive routines of Sy’s storefront existence are the driving beat of the narrative, leading to a slow-paced, low-key tale that might deter some. But there’s more than meets the eye, as Romanek and his DoP gradually ramp up the isolation to breaking point – Sy’s desk seems to move farther and farther away from the rest of the supermarket as the film draws on, while the sterile environment only seems to get brighter the darker his mood gets.
Where a Hitchcockian thriller might start with a mistakenly seen secret in the opening act, One Hour Photo waits until its midway point to begin unspooling twists, and it’s Sy’s reaction to his crumbling perception of this idyllic family that leads to the disturbing finale. Here lies the script’s success, as it takes a hotel encounter to horrible extremes, but never lets things escalate past the clinical restraint and blankly polite stare of Sy’s customer-friendly facade, assembled from a patchwork of portraits of other people’s relationships. It’s a precise study of concealed chaos, a nuanced exploration of hidden depths, and a drama that packs far more troubling complexities than its simple surface might suggest.
Photos are a frozen moment in time, a way of preserving memories, even ones we might not want, so that they linger at the bottom of our drawers or the backs of our cupboards. Romanek takes the exploitative nature of the medium and slowly twists the harmony of a happy composition into artfully arranged discord; a perfect picture sliding out of focus.