A chance invitation to a literary party on the strength of the only book he has written results in a life-changing encounter with sveltely sophisticated pan-European stranger Margit (a magnificent Kristin Scott Thomas), who starts to play an important part in his life as he becomes a regular visitor to her apartment.
But Tom can’t shake off the feeling that “the real me is somewhere else and the me that is here is just a sad double”. Unpredictable flashes of violence, inexplicable behaviour (why does he not report the robbery?), the suspicious death of a fellow lodger – contrasted with visual cuts to insects at significant moments and dual pathways in a magical forest – signal that all is not as it at first seemed. The story of a man trying to win back his family could be a journey charting his psychological breakdown, taking us on a roller-coaster ride that lurches between what is in the outside world and what is in his head, but with no way of knowing which is which.
Ethan Hawke, as well as his best-known acting credits, is himself a screenwriter, director and novelist, which gives his role an extra edge. Award-winning Kristin Scott Thomas has cornered the market in challenging roles for elegant mature – and captivating – women. The film looks stylish and feels pacey despite its central character’s introversion. In his adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s novel, writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski (of My Summer of Love) has created a slightly surreal world, an outsider’s view of an iconic city that creates a mental as well as a physical landscape. Haunting, intriguing – The Woman in the Fifth stays in the mind for long afterwards.
But with its many enigmas unresolved at the end, ultimately it frustrates rather than satisfies, despite the excellent performances.