x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Woman in the Fifth fails to really engage

While there are certainly things to be admired here, watching the film can feel like the odd experience of seeing very little unravel into even less.

Ethan Hawke stars in The Woman in the Fifth. Jean-Claude Lother
Ethan Hawke stars in The Woman in the Fifth. Jean-Claude Lother

The Woman in the Fifth
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig
***

It's been eight years since the release of the Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's arresting drama My Summer of Love, in which he captured the residents of a northern English town bathed in a warm, timeless glow.
But the intervening years have been tough on the director; he was forced to abandon his film The Restraint of Beasts midway through production, an event which coincided with the death of his wife in 2006.
The downbeat psychological thriller The Woman in the Fifth takes place under perpetually grey Parisian skies and follows a character whose story mirrors some of the hardships suffered by the filmmaker.

Adapted by Pawlikowski from Douglas Kennedy's novel of the same name, the multilingual tale follows Tom (Ethan Hawke), a beleaguered American writer and professor who arrives in Paris in the hope of reconnecting with his ex-wife and young daughter. But things don't go well for him.

First, his former partner calls the police, then after falling asleep on a bus, he wakes to discover all his possessions have been taken. Add to this his professional frustrations - Tom, not unlike Pawlikowski, is struggling to follow up to his acclaimed previous work.

To support himself, the writer takes night shifts manning a security station in the suburbs - a job that he suspects is linked to a criminal enterprise. In the very different surroundings of a literary soirée he meets, and is enchanted by, the elegant and mysterious widow Margrit (Kristin Scott Thomas).

But although the two worlds couldn't feel any more distinct to begin with, the lines begin to blur as the weight on Tom's shoulders grows heavier.

The film borrows liberally from Hitchcock and Polanski and, thanks to fine performances, there's hardly a bad scene to be found.

But The Woman in the Fifth ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts; a thriller that's never sufficiently thrilling and drives towards a conclusion that will be too familiar to most.

While there are certainly things to be admired here - from the former documentary-maker Pawlikowski's confident visual style to the economical plotting - watching the film can feel like the odd experience of seeing very little unravel into even less.

Difficulties in his own life may have helped the director to identify with this story's bereft and frustrated protagonist, but audiences are unlikely to be engaged.