The biggest thriller of 2015, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, has finally made its big-screen debut, albeit one that at times doesn’t quite capture the source material. For starters, the film is set in New York, not in London, though the main character remains British.
Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is the girl on the train. “I’m no longer the girl I used to be,” she tells us. Formerly a successful publicist, she now commutes between her home outside the city into Manhattan, dipping into her vodka-filled water bottle, staring out of the window. She watches the houses along the train tracks, in particular, one occupied by a young couple she’s never met but fantasises about. She names them, gives them successful careers, sketches them in a notebook, and assigns them the perfectly loving relationship she once had. Every so often, she also manages to look into the house where she once lived with her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), who left her for his lover and with whom he now has a baby. Rachel cannot move on, and repeatedly calls Tom, stalking his family, once even going inside her former home and carrying his baby outside. Flashbacks show how her marriage fell apart when she couldn’t conceive, the resultant binge drinking and violent outbursts followed by blackouts, leading her to the present – a sad, washed-out shell.
Megan (Haley Bennett) is the beautiful young wife Rachel so envies. But her life is far from perfect. She hates her marriage and the pressure her husband, Scott (Luke Evans), places on her to have children. She keeps a terrible secret from him, one she shares only with her psychologist, who in turn has to struggle to keep her sexual advances at bay.
The third person in this trio of ‘lost’ women, is Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), Tom’s new wife. She’s a stay-at-home mom, and seems perfectly happy taking care of her baby daughter, Evie, with the help of Megan as nanny. But even this life is packed with lies. Anna longs for the excitement of being The Other Woman, and her façade cracks when Megan suddenly quits, leaving Anna with the exhausting task of being alone with an infant all day long. Her comment that being a mother is the most important job feels half-hearted.
A murder will throw these three women together and entangle them in a dark web they cannot escape from. Rachel, it appears, may have been involved in the event in some way, but her memory is full of gaps, and in a moment of horror, she admits she’s afraid of herself.
Paul Hawkins’ novel peels away the layers of this murder-mystery by telling the story from the viewpoint of all three women, using a series of time-hops and jumps between present and past. It’s this device, rather than the murder itself, that makes the story so intriguing. Yes, it’s a whodunit, but what makes The Girl on the Train novel a psychological thriller on par with Gone Girl is the unreliability of the narrators, in particular, the titular character. Unfortunately, Erin Cressida Wilson’s film script, doesn’t take the time to explore the women’s complexities and the claustrophobic suburban nightmares they find themselves in.
Director Tate Taylor’s film captures some of the pervasive eeriness that comes with any story dealing with the voyeur. But the director is also holding back on us by playing it safe, failing to create uncanny mindfuck that Hawkins does in her the novel. The palette is mostly grey with mist often decorating the landscape which really does make it seem more like London than New York State. But book-Rachel is a frumpy, overweight, and pathetic character with whom the reader often struggles to empathise (this reader at least), while film-Rachel is anything but ugly (all Blunt needs is a good hairbrush and some lip gloss) and it’s easier to feel sorry for her.
Those who are now shouting that you can’t compare a book to a film, sit down. While it obviously is impossible to condense a book into two hours of reel, a good adaptation takes what is best about the book – the feelings it evokes – and tries to capture that. And The Girl on the Train just doesn’t do this. The book cleverly builds the tension around Rachel’s lost memories. The film falls flat in this regard. It may have been a risk for the scriptwriter to include more time jumps the way the book does – movies that do this often become cluttered and boring. But in this case, it may have helped to build up the characters, explain their relationships better, and help the viewer become involved in the quest to find out what really happened.
Emily Blunt saves The Girl on the Train from being a complete waste of time, but she’s never allowed to shine and take Rachel all the way to being the absolute train wreck she is in the book. Haley Bennett’s Megan is convincing as a woman who is being suffocated by her past and present, but she could have done with a bit more screen time. And Rebecca Ferguson is barely there, meaning the audience never has a chance to explore Anna’s psyche. Justin Theroux is passable as Tom, as is Luke Evans as Scott.
It’s hard to believe that even those who haven’t read the book could find this film to be the engrossing, edge-of-your-seat, psychological thriller with a post-feminist examination of women’s psyche that it’s meant to be. You may as well wait for it on DVD and watch one of the other offerings opening this weekend.
Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans
Rating: 3 out of 5
SA release date: 07 October 2016