out of Five
Running time: 83
Engaging and frustrating in equal measure, this is a haunting and frequently disturbing thriller with a superb central performance from Ethan Hawke.
What's it all about?
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, making his first film since 2004's My Summer of Love, and loosely based on the novel by Douglas Kennedy, The Woman in the Fifth stars Ethan Hawke as American novelist Tom Ricks, who comes to Paris in order to try and reconnect with his ex-wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) and young daughter Chloe (Julie Papillon). However, Tom is shocked to discover that Nathalie has taken out a restraining order against him and things quickly go from bad to worse when he has all his luggage stolen and winds up having to stay at a dodgy hotel run by local gangster Sezer (Samir Guesmi).
When Sezer offers him a job as a night watchman in a strange location, Tom accepts and begins spending his days spying on Chloe and Nathalie in public parks. At the same time, Tom begins affairs with both a Polish waitress at the cafe (Joanna Kulig as Ania) and Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a mysterious woman in the fifth arrondissement that he meets at a literary soiree.
Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as Tom, delivering a finely balanced, edgy performance that we can't help liking, even though – as evidenced by Nathalie's obvious fear of him – we quickly understand that his point of view might not be entirely reliable. Kristin Scott Thomas is equally good as Margit, though her enigmatic nature means that there's very little to her character other than surface slinkiness (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Pawlikowski's slow-burning script adeptly builds an increasingly tense atmosphere, drawing you into the story and flirting with both supernatural and thriller conventions even as you gradually realise what's actually going on – for example, a revelation about Margit won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's seen a thriller before, but its implications for the rest of the story are genuinely disturbing. On top of that, the film is strikingly shot, with Ryszard Lenczewski's cinematography eschewing the usual tourist vistas in favour of some authentically offbeat Paris locations.
The main problem is that the film doesn't quite manage to tie together all its loose ends (most notably in its frequent use of forest-based inserts), which is ultimately frustrating, while viewers looking for a straight-up thriller are likely to be disappointed, since Pawlikowski's interests clearly lie elsewhere (though to reveal them in detail would be to give away too much).
Despite some resolution issues, The Woman in the Fifth is an engaging, offbeat and frequently haunting Euro-thriller with a terrific central performance from Ethan Hawke. Worth seeing.
The Woman In The Fifth (15)