The Woman in the Fifth  (2012)

17 February 2012

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The Woman in the Fifth. American writer Tom Ricks comes to Paris desperate to put his life together again and win back the love of his estranged wife and daughter. When things don't go according to plan, he ends up in a shady hotel in the suburbs, having to work as a night guard to make ends meet. Then Margit, a beautiful, mysterious stranger walks into his life and things start looking up. Their passionate and intense relationship triggers a string of inexplicable events... as if an obscure power was taking control of his life.

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"Not quite as intriguing or as accomplished as the original novel, but when are they ever?"

"Based on the novel by..." is a somewhat common sentence to open a film, yet very rarely have I actually read the novel upon which the film is based. However, due to having read Douglas Kennedy's The Woman in the Fifth, my familiarity only serves in devaluing the feature, as comparisons to the gripping novel prove costly for Pawel Pawlikowski's production.

Ethan Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a former University Lecturer hailing from America, moving to Paris in order to get closer to his daughter Chloé (Julie Papillon) and estranged wife Nathalie (Delphine Chuillot) and to leave behind a shady and turbulent past in the United States.

However, Tom's reception isn't perhaps as warm as he had envisaged, when Nathalie denies him access to his daughter. His terrible luck then continues as his belongings are stolen. The down-trodden tourist is without money or hope, and decides to take a room from café owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi), and to make up for his lack of funds, he takes a job from his new landlord as a night security guard - sitting in a derelict room, unaware of the disreputable goings-on he is protecting.

However, a ray of light exists in beautiful stranger Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), a beguiling widow whom Tom falls for. He visits her almost daily, as he attempts to recover his life and well-being, despite balancing his affections between Margit and Polish waitress Ania (Joanna Kulig). Yet such happiness is counteracted with a string of mystifying consequences.

Pawlikowski's feature is a pensive and minimalist offering, slow-burning in the lead up to a quite unthinkable and striking conclusion. However, for a story that boasts such an unexpected and complex finale, Pawlikowski certainly underplays the ending, perhaps not giving it the precedence it deserves. It all feels too rushed and therefore disorientating - peculiar given the dilatory nature of the picture. I am often the first to criticise when a filmmaker needlessly goes on too long, but in this instance the feature actually feels too short at under 90 minutes, and despite the meditative beginning, The Woman in the Fifth could certainly benefit from taking its time explaining and portraying the film’s ending more carefully and succinctly, rather than leaving it blatantly ambiguous.

Similarly to the novel, the audience feel in the dark for much of the feature, oblivious to Tom's past and with little explanation for the supernatural occurrences portrayed. However, unlike the novel, we are kept in the dark as little is made clear to us, as if the film is the bearer of a big secret the audience aren’t a part of. Why Tom was legally unable to visit his daughter is left open, and the relationship between himself and Margit could certainly have been explored further, as perhaps with more information it could help us understand his predicament fully, allowing us to comprehend how a one-time lecturer is now living in a hell hole, working illegally and without ambition. 

Yet such perplexity is permitted due to the art house feel to the picture, as Pawlikowski is evidently in touch with his roots as the film has a palpable European cinema atmosphere to it, enhanced by the use of subtitles as even Hawke tests his own ability to speak French, adding a touch of authenticity to proceedings. Such legitimacy proves to be gratifying, as it is often frustrating to see English words simply spoken in an accent in films set around the world. The art house sub-genre is also explored in the camera work, voyeuristic and indistinct at times, showing Paris off beautifully, despite the somewhat bleak ambience.

Another positive comes in the performance by Hawke, displaying the unfortunate and morose side to his character, yet also portraying the unnerving fearlessness that Tom has, allowing for him to do whatever has to be done to make ends meet, proving to be great casting as he encapsulates the character Kennedy created.

However Hawke's performance is arguably the only aspect to the feature which remains faithful to the book, as despite enjoying The Woman in the Fifth as a lone feature, it does become difficult not to continuously pick holes in it where it differs from the novel, with negative consequences. You certainly wouldn't think this is a film based on a page turner, acting as a toned down version of the compelling novel. In a sense I wish I hadn't previously read the book, as it highlights misgivings only apparent when familiar with the story, devaluing the picture, and perhaps - and apologetically - making for a somewhat lopsided review.

Yet ignoring my initial acquaintance with the story and taking the film for what it is, it's amicable and engaging, undemanding in its approach. The film is not quite as intriguing or as accomplished as the original novel, but when are they ever?

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film information
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  • Release Date
  • 17 February 2012
  • Cast
  • Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas
  • Director
  • Pawel Pawlikowski
  • Writer
  • Douglas Kennedy (book), Pawel Pawlikowski (screenplay)
  • Company
  • Artificial Eye
  • Genre
  • Thriller
  • Runtime
  • 85 minutes
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