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Reviews in Retrospect: One Hour Photo

A heartbreaking portrayal of loneliness and isolation - and arguably Robin Williams' finest hour in film.

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One Hour Photo premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2002. Robin Williams won a Saturn Award for Best Actor the following year for his exquisitely painful performance as Si, a department store photo processor.

The film is a psychological thriller and an exploration of family photos as a cultural phenomenon reflecting the need for art to affirm life.

Most strikingly it’s a heartbreaking portrayal of loneliness and isolation. Williams is the star - arguably his finest hour in film - and his co-star is the camera itself, rich in the multi-layered metaphor of a lens through which we view the world.

Si’s desperation to belong (his backstory comes much later) drives a voyeuristic interest in the Yorkin family, whose photos he has been developing since the birth of the son, Jake (Dylan Smith), nine years ago. His idealisation of this family – itself a projection – is shattered when he develops a film brought in by another customer.

Smith was nominated for a Young Artist Award and his performance gives credence to the relationship with Williams that is central to the narrative. In a moving scene with his mother Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielson), Jake expresses his sense that Si is sad. Whilst his mother fails to see beyond the practised smile, the child’s wisdom speaks of an intuition that continues throughout the film as he relates to the lost, sad child in Si.

Mark Romanek’s direction produces a unique blend of mundane detail (‘the little things’) with dream sequences. Both script and cinematography manifest this. The eerie, clinical whiteness of the mall echoes the interview room of the closing scene. This is contrasted with interiors in the affluent home of the Yorkins and the restricted space that Si inhabits, physically and metaphorically.

To populate his non-existent photo album Si surrounds himself with pictures of his ideal family. The scene in which he buys a photo of a beautiful woman who isn’t his mother is poignant as he asks, “How much for this one?”

One Hour Photo investigates what’s apparent as opposed to what’s real.

Si’s comment about developing pictures – “There’s far more to it than meets the eye” - is an observation of reaching resonance. Life is about a moment in time, a snapshot, and our choices as to what’s preserved. If we cannot say, ‘I was here, I existed, and someone cared enough about me to take my picture,’ - if we go unnoticed, unrecorded - then how do we live?

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