One-Hour Photo (Cert 15)


Robin Williams gives the performance of his life in One Hour Photo, an artfully designed, sensitively directed thriller about the underside of the American Dream.

Williams plays Sy, a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, balding man who develops photos in a huge, fluorescent hypermarket that feels like an aircraft hangar. Sy has no family, but looks after his customers, especially Jake (Dylan Smith), the pre-teen son of nice Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) and wealthy Will (Michael Vartan).

Sy has no friends and eats alone. He also has a temper, which flares when he argues with an over- casual photo machine repairman. And there's something very creepy about him.

He has taken copies of the Yorkin family snaps over the past six years, and has papered one wall of his room with them. He sits outside their home in his car and fantasises about becoming 'Uncle Sy', part of their rich, friendly family.

So when he discovers via another customer's photos that father Will is doing a John Major with the local Edwina and the Yorkins are not really picture perfect, something, well, snaps.

First, Sy alerts Nina to what is happening, and when she seems curiously reluctant to confront her husband, he takes matters into his hands and reaches for a kitchen knife.

All this sounds like the lead-up to a slasher movie, and it's both a strength and a weakness that it doesn't go in that direction. Instead, Sy performs a number of actions that don't make much sense. They suggest that he is either a moral crusader or a dangerous pervert - probably both.

Audiences will pay to see Williams when he is lovable and nutty, as in Mrs Doubtfire, or when he is indulging his taste for sentiment in Awakenings and Dead Poets Society (at the good end of the quality spectrum) or Bicentennial Man, Patch Adams and Jack (at the bad end).

Audiences won't be so keen to accept Williams's creepiness, his demeaning anxiety to ingratiate himself and that steely calculation behind those crinkly, friendly eyes. His manic intensity clearly has something to do with his self- confessed appetite for drugs in the past.

The writer- director Mark Romanek's debut exploits Williams's dark side cleverly, and is as visually inventive as you'd expect from a top director of music videos; but he's never pointlessly flashy. He makes effective use of space, harsh lighting and colour - most of all, Williams's lack of colour.

Sy merges into his bland environment. This poses the interesting question of whether he is hiding for reasons of selfpreservation or because he is a potential predator.

The movie would have worked better if it were less enigmatic. We do want to know precisely why Nina looks so stressed and is so unwilling to confront Will over his infidelity.

The screenplay should have been more prepared to probe into the psychological and historical roots of Sy's disappointment with the Yorkin family. It leaves us uncertain as to what he is trying to achieve, and even whether or not he's really a pervert.

I suspect that what the film is trying to say is that we have unreasonably high expectations of the nuclear family. It doesn't cover all men's needs, or all women's. Essentially, it's a convenient, mostly effective, way of raising children within a supportive, loving environment. But if that is the underlying theme, Romanek needed to state it more clearly.

Patently, One Hour Photo fails to deliver as a slasher movie, but that was never its intention. Essentially, it's a study of alienation, suppressed anger and loneliness.

There's such detail and nuance in Williams's performance that, as a portrait of mental disintegration, the film is never less than riveting.

This is one of those rare pictures you may well find unsatisfying at the time but will remain with you long after you've left the cinema. You'll find yourself looking at a stranger, thinking 'Who does he remind me of?' and then remembering, with a shudder, that it's Sy.

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