A year after the director Jamie Thraves made his comeback with Treacle Jr., his first film since scraping together The Cry of the Owl with the aid of British TV and Canadian producers, there returns Pawel Pawlikowski, seven years from the acclaimed My Summer with Love, with his own offbeat literary drama, assembled with the assistance of Film4 and the Polish Film Institute. I don't know about you, but - for all the hoopla of this week's BAFTAs - I'm getting the impression the British film industry isn't treating its best and brightest as well as it possibly might. As it happens, The Woman in the Fifth has the distinct look of a project undertaken by a filmmaker who's been left to it, in the least helpful way: it takes a compelling set-up from Douglas Kennedy's source novel, but then fails to develop in any satisfactory manner, before finishing not with a flourish, but a shrug of "ah well, that'll do".
Ethan Hawke, clad in Angelos Epithemiou-like NHS specs that make him look like, well, a right child molester, plays Tom Ricks, an American writer and lecturer who's arrived in Paris to see his estranged wife and daughter; turned away at their door, he then falls asleep on a bus, and wakes up - having been robbed of his possessions - in the rundown arondissement of the title. He takes makeshift digs above a cafe whose Algerian proprietor hands him a mysterious surveillance job as a way of getting some cash together, and then - at a literary soiree he stumbles into, not exactly in the frame of mind to mingle - he crosses paths with the mysterious Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas), muse to a dead Hungarian writer who refused to use punctuation, and a woman so French her calling card suggests she resides in the "rue du Croissant".
Pawlikowski again does some of his best work with place. This is a Paris denuded of its usual romance and glamour: the Fifth turns out to be a neighborhood covered with graffiti and criss-crossed with railway lines that don't go anywhere. (Translation: we're well and truly on the wrong side of the tracks.) His interiors are no less authentic and compelling: the smoky, greasy cafe, with its squalid accommodation and unflushed toilets, chimes with Ricks's new office space, which operates to the hum of electrical equipment and shady underworld activity going on somewhere beyond the walls - a return to the seedy South Coast locales of Pawlikowski's 2001 breakthrough Last Resort.
It's just a pity the surveillance business amounts to a locked-room mystery Pawlikowski can't, won't or doesn't have the resources to resolve, and The Woman in the Fifth keeps making eccentric choices with regard to plot and character. Hawke's mid-career decision to play scuzzy-scruffy is interesting, but those glasses really do feel a mistake: a cosmetic suggestion of a fraying mental state the actor is more than capable of projecting himself. And while Margit affords us at least one signature Scott Thomas moment, as she summons the writer to her apartment to plunge her hand into his trousers and size him up, it's basically a non-role employing the actress for iconic purposes: the character could just as easily be played by a cardboard Kristin standee.
With support/contrast coming from an angelic blonde Polish waitress (Joanna Kulig) who comes to the protagonist's door in a low-cut dress and asks whether he's heard of the poet Norvid - frankly, my dear, I don't believe he's concentrating - all the characters seem like figments of the imagination long before the plot starts pulling rugs; Pawlikowski gets his most complete acting work from the spiders and bugs he dots around his sets. Like Thraves' equally circumscribed take on Patricia Highsmith, this is clearly a work undertaken by a director keen to get back into circulation, and there are elements in this funny-strange/funny-ha ha exercise that make one want to see more from Pawlikowski. If anything, though, The Woman in the Fifth suffers from an excess of a very British reserve, clinging to safe, investor-approved realism where Polanski, that other noted Pole in exile, committed in The Tenant (an inspiration, possibly?) to full-on, loony-tunes expressionism.
The Woman in the Fifth opens in selected cinemas from Friday.