Fox Searchlight/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 92 mins .
M15+ . PAL
It’s long been the burning ambition of music video directors everywhere to get into the more respectable world of feature film, and plenty of them have taken the plunge over the years since the video-clip boom. For years, though, seeing a music video director’s name in the opening credits of a movie meant two things: highly stylised show-off visuals and a notable absence of real dramatic substance. Russell Mulcahy, for example, went from Duran Duran to a movie about a killer feral pig, which was filmed so glossily you expected Simon LeBon to walk into shot and start miming (fortunately, Russell’s subsequent career has been more notable). But in recent years, something’s happened - music video directors are turning to the “real” movies and - gasp - they’re actually making good ones. Some may have giggled when David Fincher got the gig to direct Alien 3, but no-one’s laughing at the man now he’s regarded as one of Hollywood’s true innovators. Spike Jonze put himself in a similar position with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. So by the time Mark Romanek showed up on the credits of One Hour Photo, hardly anyone batted an eyelid. Sure, he was extremely well-known for his visually arresting music videos - Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, Madonna’s Rain and Bedtime Story and Michael Jackson’s mega-budgeted Scream among them - but that was a fact mentioned only in passing in most reviews of One Hour Photo (perhaps because it’s actually his second feature - the first, the little-known Static, came out in 1985). Like Fincher before him, Romanek, who also scripted here, is not about to plunder his music video toolkit to tell this story. But he most certainly does have some astonishing visual ideas in store.
A bad day in photoland.
Seymour “Sy” Parrish (Robin Williams) works at the one hour photo department of the cavernous, cold and generic department store SavMart. For over a decade he’s developed and printed people’s memories with an almost obsessive attention to quality. But Sy is a lonely man - his job is his only contact with the human race, and the rest of his life is spent alone in a dingy apartment, with no family or friends in his life. One of his most regular customers is Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), who’s been bringing her happy snaps of herself, her husband and their young son in to get processed for many years. What she doesn’t know is that Sy has been paying her photos particular attention, making prints of them for himself and eagerly following the progress of their lives through these static images. He imagines himself as part of their seemingly perfect family, and makes occasional creepy forays into their real lives. But when Sy discovers that this perfect family unit is not quite what it seems, things begin to spiral out of control…
Much has been said about Robin Williams’ performance in this film, and rightly so. Thoroughly unnerving and eerily controlled, his Sy is a man that we understand a lot about right from the first scene, simply because Williams inhabits his character so thoroughly. It’s a rare dark turn for Williams, who has never done a role this far away from his usual manic humour - there’s none of that here, and he handles the role so well one can only hope he continues to push the boundaries of his formidable acting talent in the future. He’s the compelling dramatic centre of this film, the rest of the (very good) cast all relegated to supporting roles by comparison. Romanek’s craftsmanship is stunning, building tension throughout the first two acts without the viewer even realising it’s happening - until that tension is brought to a head in the final act. Those waiting for clichés might be surprised; this is a movie that’s about character rather than events, and it’s not always necessarily what it seems to be.
An intelligent, stylish and refreshingly low-key thriller, One Hour Photo is a feature-length announcement that Mark Romanek has a bright future in movies. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take another 17 years to make the next one.
This rental-only version of One Hour Photo is, as is customary for Fox, a bare-bones DVD containing only the movie itself, compressed onto a single-layered disc. What’s surprising is the low encoding bitrate used for such a visually complex film; there’s a good gigabyte left unused on the DVD. However, the MPEG compression is up to the task, and there are no major flaws in that department. What’s slightly disappointing, though, is the transfer itself. While it reflects the movie’s often-harsh lighting and unusual colour palettes accurately, it suffers from an unusually high level of noise in darker scenes (possibly film grain, possibly not) and more than the usual amount of nicks and scratches on the source (though nothing excessive). The big issue here is the inexplicable horizontal judder that appears throughout - but only on certain shots, like at the beginning of chapter 4. It’s as though the negative was not running quite smoothly enough through the camera, but could just as easily be a problem that crept in at the transfer stage. It’s subtle enough to not be a distraction to the casual rental viewer, but many will find it annoying; hopefully this is an anomaly which will be corrected for the retail version of the disc. Aside from these difficulties, picture quality is very good, though not quite up there with the best. Colour saturation is superb, something that’s vitally important in a film that uses colour so inventively. The transfer is at the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and is of course 16:9 enhanced.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is an intelligently immersive experience, one which uses the five channels to very involving effect without being overly showy. Fidelity is excellent, dialogue is razor-sharp and the huge digital dynamic range is used to great effect, but the best fun is had down in the subwoofer, which is a key participant in the overall mood of the film. An excellent soundtrack both in its design and its mixing.
There are of course no extras here; they’ll be on the retail version later in the year (already on sale in regions 1 and 2, cough) and should include a Robin Williams/Mark Romanek commentary and a couple of worthwhile featurettes.