Alcoholism, Drama, Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Literary adaptation, Luke Evans, Murder, Paula Hawkins, Rebecca Ferguson, Review, Tate Taylor, Thriller
D:Tate Taylor / 112m
Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramírez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Darren Goldstein, Lisa Kudrow
Whenever a novel becomes an unexpectedly massive success – such as Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train did in 2015 – then a movie adaptation is sure to follow. But what happens when the source material isn’t strong enough to support a movie version? What do the makers of such a movie do to combat this? The answer, when you watch the movie version of The Girl on the Train, becomes obvious quite quickly: they don’t do anything, they merely transcribe events and characters to the screen and do nothing to circumvent the problems in the novel. Oh – and they do so in the hope that no one will notice.
From the beginning of The Girl on the Train we have a clumsy voice over that introduces us to Rachel Watson, a thirty-two year old woman who rides the train to and from work every day, and who seems to have created a fantasy world built around another woman (Bennett) that she sees most days from the train. The woman in question piques Rachel’s interest, as she lives a few doors away from where Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Theroux) lives with his new wife, Anna (Ferguson), and their baby daughter, Evie. Believing this woman to have a perfect marriage (but having no real reason to believe this at all), Rachel is shocked one morning to see her kissing a man who isn’t her husband.
Rachel is so disturbed by this that she decides to confront the woman. But Rachel is an alcoholic, and though she makes the attempt, she suffers a blackout and wakes the next morning with cuts and bruises and blood on her clothes – but no memory of how any of it happened. Things get worse when a detective (Janney) visits Rachel and asks her if she knows the woman, whose name is Megan. Megan has gone missing, and because Rachel was spotted in the area where Megan was last seen, the detective wonders if Rachel is involved in Megan’s disappearance in some way. Able to stall the detective’s questions, Rachel then makes a fateful decision.
Anyone who has read the book will know that Rachel’s decision is to involve herself in the life of Megan’s husband, Scott (Evans). And the movie follows this route as well – how could it not? – but as with the novel, the movie has the same problem: her decision makes no sense at all. It’s obvious from Rachel’s behaviour – when she’s not fantasizing about a complete stranger, she’s stalking her ex-husband – that she’s got what you’d politely call “issues”, but the only reason the movie has for this behaviour is the fact that Rachel is an alcoholic. It was a contributing factor in her divorce from Tom, and it leads to a couple of minor revelations later on, but it ends up being a catch-all for anything she does that seems a bit manic or ill-advised. The novel tries to make her appear vulnerable; here she just seems desperate.
But as her involvement with Scott is passed off as trying to help (and punish Megan if she stops being missing), Rachel abandons all sense of decency and respect for the ordeal Scott is going through, and pushes her own agenda, which is to find Megan’s abductor or killer – and hope that it isn’t her. This leads to a couple of major revelations, and a final denouement that will have female audiences cheering, and male audiences shaking their heads at the reverse misogyny on display. In essence, the problems in the novel have become the problems in the movie.
The main problem audiences will have is a lack of someone to even remotely care about. Despite a powerful and from time to time, deeply moving performance by Blunt, The Girl on the Train operates in an emotional vacuum. The trials and tribulations of the various characters are often on display, but it’s like watching a trio of strong-minded women who’ve all decided to give up on being independent, and who can only define themselves through their relationships with men. Rachel is the ex-wife who can’t deal with the fact that her marriage is over, Megan is the wife who needs affairs to feel some kind of connection with herself, and Anna is the ex-lover turned second wife whose chief function is being the mother of Tom’s child. Viewers may find themselves put off by the relentless undermining these characters experience, and the various ways the movie reinforces the ways in which said characters were undermined in the novel.
But beyond all the ersatz feminism, there remains the problem of the central mystery. Megan’s disappearance becomes a murder enquiry when her body is discovered in some nearby woods. But though Rachel wonders if she did kill Megan during her blackout, the likelihood of that actually having happened is so small it’s on a virtually sub-atomic level. So that leaves Anna, a character so gloriously one-dimensional that Ferguson’s talents as an actress are wasted; her husband Tom, whose outward calm and sincerity masks a need to control his environment; and tortured husband Scott, whose wild, angry outbursts could be a smokescreen for something much darker. And those are the only suspects, as the man Megan is seen kissing is her shrink, Dr Kamal Abdic (Ramírez), and despite the screenplay’s ham-fisted attempt to put him in the frame, he’s the classic red herring. This then makes it easy to work out who killed Megan, and also why.
For a thriller based on the novel “that shocked the world” – really? – The Girl on the Train is a bit of a damp squib, only showing signs of life when focusing on Blunt’s portrayal of Rachel. Blunt brings some much needed craft to her performance, ensuring that while everyone around her aims for competent, she’s proving capable of giving a layered, compassionate performance that elevates the material whenever her alcoholism is mentioned, or she’s on screen. In contrast, Taylor, who failed to find the motivation to make The Help (2011) as compelling as it should have been, leaves the viewer with the feeling he’s only semi-engaged with the project, and as a result, none of it resonates in the way that it should. It all leaves the movie looking and sounding like an uninspired echo of the original novel – and a less than engaging one at that.
Rating: 5/10 – slickly, professionally made, but as hollow as an Easter egg, The Girl on the Train delivers low rent thrills and annoying plot developments as it unfolds the mystery of Megan Hipwell’s disappearance; the non-linear approach of the novel is retained, and used to good effect, but this is still one literary adaptation that should have been more enticing and rewarding than it actually is.