The Woman in the Fifth Review

Pawel Pawlikowski’s disappointingly belated and tremendously unsatisfying return, following 2004’s lyrical and lovely My Summer of Love, may be explained by the director’s recent history. When he was about 60% of the way through making The Restraint of Beasts in 2006, Pawlikowski’s wife fell gravely ill, and the film had to be abandoned. Pawlikowski’s wife died a few months later. This sad story makes it rather easy to see what may have attracted him to this story of a writer (Ethan Hawke), in the aftermath of a bitter divorce, marooned in Paris, wanting to see his young daughter, and finding himself falling for two more emigres; Kristin Scott Thomas’ upper class widow, a former muse to her husband, and a Polish girl (Joanna Kulig), who works at the seedy hotel he is staying in.

The Woman in the Fifth has an identity crisis. Is it a mystery, asking us why Hake’s character isn’t allowed to see his daughter? Is it about an obsessive affair between Hawke and Scott-Thomas? Is it a thriller about what exactly is going on at the hotel where Hawke stays and works? Is it a romance between Hawke and Kulig? Is it a ghost story? The problem is that, in 82 minutes, it is all of the above and, thus, none of the above. The film keeps planting seeds, but never gives any of them time to grow, often just abandoning plot threads (for instance, what is going on at the hotel? Something sinister is hinted at, but the film seems to lose interest after a couple of scenes).

This frustrating structure also means that the characters are basically reduced to ciphers. Hawke mopes around and mumbles in very stilted French (character appropriate, but monotonous to listen to), and with the film focused relentlessly on him, you’d think the character might develop. Sadly you’d be wrong, Tom Ricks remains a non-entity throughout, wandering from place to place and person to person, there’s no sense of narrative or character drive here. Disappointing as Hawke’s role and performance are, that is nothing compared to the flagrant waste of the talents of Kristin Scott-Thomas. Scott-Thomas is surely one of the finest British actors working, and she has sought out challenging and complex roles over the years (hence her notable absence from British and American films lately). As Margit though, she has little to do but appear at her door and seduce Hawke. There’s no depth, no sense of a relationship, no sense, really, of Margit as a person. Scott-Thomas almost becomes a prop here. I don’t think it’s her fault; she’s got nothing to work with, but all the same it is frustrating to see her usually outstanding work so diminished. Only Joanna Kulig makes a really positive impression, her character is thin, but Kulig hints enough at the sadness behind her situation that you wish she were more developed.

Pawlikowski utterly fails to draw the film’s strands together into anything resembling a whole, and his downbeat visual style has neither the stark realism of his feature debut Last Resort nor the compelling mix of the real and the dreamlike which made My Summer of Love so beguiling. Indeed, what seems lacking here is a sense of engagement and energy from behind the cameera. Pawlikowski seems incapable of whipping life into his visuals, his story, or his actors, and the result is a film that simply sits inertly on the screen with little motion or purpose.

The Woman in the Fifth is a crashing disappointment; a group of real talents, uniting for a film that wastes every one of them.

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