A gripping story and a stellar performance by Emily Blunt manage to prevent this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ hit thriller from entering train-wreck territory.
In January 2015, hot on the heels of the critical and commercial success received by Gone Girl, came another psychologically complex thriller which gripped the world. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train quickly became a huge bestseller, and unsurprisingly, the film rights were quickly snapped up. Now, just under two years later, arrives the big-screen adaptation of Hawkins’ novel.
The premise follows Rachel (Emily Blunt) on her train commute every day, in which she regularly sees, and into the home of, an attractive couple (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans). Rachel conjures up images and forms stories of the kind of perfect life these people lead, fixating on them to an unsettling degree. On one of her commutes, Rachel spies the woman from the couple, Megan, kissing another man. The next morning, Rachel awakes to find herself injured and covered in blood, and Megan is missing. Rachel’s memory of the previous night is fragmented and she soon becomes caught up in the investigation of Megan’s disappearance.
It becomes clear Rachel lives a troubled and isolating life; infertility problems have seemingly driven her to alcoholism, while this then seemingly led to her ex-husband, Tom, (Justin Theroux) cheating on, and eventually leaving, her for his new wife, Anna, (Rebecca Ferguson). It is revealed that Megan used to nanny for Tom and Anna, further complicating Rachel’s involvement. What follows is a toxic, psychological tale of cruelty, deceit, and murder.
Voyeurism has been the focus of thrillers before (most famously, Hitchcock’s captivating Rear Window) and is a subject which constantly intrigues audiences. Likewise, unreliable and complex lead narrators are another fascinating aspect to explore in storytelling, and these were two of the factors which made Hawkins’ novel so gripping. Therefore, it’s dismaying to see this enthralling premise be transformed into nothing more than an adequate cinematic thriller.
Director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) is evidently inexperienced when it comes to thrillers, clumsily handling the narrative structure used in the novel. Placing the key event at the beginning of the film would’ve provided the instant grip a good thriller needs. Instead, Taylor begins the film with a linear narration, before incompetently choosing to play around with this to the point of confusion. Taylor attempts to emulate the triple POV narrative from the novel, but does so with little success. Intertitles are initially used to inform whether it is Rachel, Megan, or Anna narrating, but these soon disappear, and audiences are then left to guess from whose perspective events are now being told from, and whether they are in the past or present. Here, the ambiguity doesn’t work and just becomes annoyingly unclear.
Equally, despite comparisons to Gone Girl being rife from the novel alone, it’s disheartening to see the filmmakers making choices which result in the film looking little more than a cheap attempt to cash in on Gillian Flynn and David Fincher’s success. Hawkins’ novel is set in the UK, yet Taylor decides to shift the location to the US (like Gone Girl) with no apparent justification given, and this further perpetuates the film’s lack of originality.
That being said, The Girl on the Train is an intensely gripping thriller in places, this largely being down to a terrific central performance. Despite being a far cry from the puffy-faced and overweight Rachel portrayed in the novel, Emily Blunt still manages to give a compelling and believable performance of the eponymous character. Blunt effortlessly conveys the vulnerability and roughness expected of a woman whose life makes a Shakespeare tragedy seem like a walk in the park. Blunt captivates throughout; effectively communicating Rachel’s daily trauma as she attempts to come to terms with her life. Her performance manages to convince to such an extent, it makes you question the overall outcome, even if you’ve read the novel.
However, akin to the issue experienced by Gone Girl and countless other thrillers; when the source material is so well-known, maintaining mystery and suspense is a difficult task. This is magnified by the red herrings of the novel being deployed ineffectually, meaning Blunt’s performance is as close as we get to questioning whether the film’s outcome will differ to that of the novel. For fans of the book, there are few, if any, surprises here.
Better direction could’ve transformed this engaging concept into a compellingly disturbing thrill ride of Hitchcockian proportions; but what we’re presented with is a decent thriller with a captivating central performance. Not quite a train-wreck, but no runaway success.
The Girl On The Train is playing in the Warwick Arts Centre from October 28th to 3rd November.
Director: Tate Taylor
Run Time: 112 minutes
Starring: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez, Lisa Kudrow.