“The Girl on the Train”: not quite on the right track

This review contains plot details of “The Girl on the Train”

THE first thing that will strike British audiences watching “The Girl on the Train” is how huge the houses are. Rachel, the alcoholic protagonist of Paula Hawkins’s bestselling novel of the same name, has been uprooted from London to upstate New York. Here, instead of whizzing past rows of poky terraced houses en route to the big smoke each day, Rachel stares blurry-eyed at white-washed mansions that look more as if they belong on plantation land. Is this how the commuters of Manhattan really live? This life will certainly look idyllic to most ordinary British folk, whatever the personal tragedies of the inhabitants within. 

Literary devotees on the east side of the Atlantic—who felt that drinking gin and tonic out of a can and spending time on trains staring gormlessly at over-exposed, tiny backyards were two distinctly British traits—need not be concerned. Other than location, the film is remarkably faithful to its source material. It is thrilling where the book is thrilling and flawed, too, in the same spots where the book fell short of its own exciting premise.  

As Rachel, Emily Blunt is largely responsible for the film’s successes. Following her divorce two years earlier, ostensibly due to her descent into alcoholism, Rachel has lost her job and her dignity, taking the train in and out of Grand Central Station each day just for something to do. On every journey she passes by her old street and her old house, now inhabited by her ex-husband, his new wife and their baby: the life she always wanted with him. A cacophony of railway noise helps build a sense of monotony and tension: the chug of the train carriages, the screeches on the tracks. 

An impossibly good-looking young couple lives a few houses down. They lounge, they kiss, they make love, and through her haze of liquor and longing, Rachel watches them together. She vividly imagines their perfect life and takes a strange, obsessive sort of comfort in it—until the day she sees this woman kissing another man. She is incensed by her infidelity. That night she gets off the train at their stop; the next morning she wakes up covered in blood but can barely remember. Her memory can only offer a flash of blonde hair here, a violent shove there. What follows is a unique take on the unreliable narrator motif. The woman, whose name turns out to be Megan, has gone missing. Rachel is prone to blackouts: she may have been involved, but she cannot be sure, because at the crossroads of her rage, drunkenness and obsession there is memory loss, confusion and hope. 

Ms Blunt nails the teetering insecurity and paranoia of someone cognisant and ashamed of their addiction. Here is a woman manifestly tortured by self-doubt, uncertain of her own identity and place in the world. Ms Blunt’s face, though still beautiful, has been roughly rouged and puffed up to better resemble someone whose appearance prompts disgust in other commuters. Yet it is really Ms Blunt’s display of understated misery that makes her intoxication so believable. Playing drunk is very hard to do. Ms Blunt, who, incidentally, was pregnant and entirely sober throughout filming, plays it very convincingly indeed. 

Alongside her is blonde bombshell Megan (Haley Bennett) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the sultry yet maternal new wife of Tom, Rachel’s ex (Justin Theroux). As in the book, the narration is told from each of these female perspectives, but Rachel’s is always the most compelling. Director Tate Taylor is experienced in literary adaptations: he was at the helm for the Oscar-nominated “The Help” (2011).

But Mr Taylor is prone to neglecting supporting parts. Megan feels a little too like the archetypical serial adulteress, and we never really get to know Anna at all. Allison Janney, who worked with Mr Taylor on “The Help”, should be superb as the curt cop investigating the disappearance of Megan, but the script plays too heavily on the apparently innate nurturing side of a female law enforcement officer. The men—Tom and Megan’s husband Scott (Luke Evans)—feel even more rudimentary. The film has plenty of glossy flashbacks and s.e.xed-up violence, but its characterisation lags behind.

The book suffered from a similar deficiency. Its drunk narrator put an innovative spin on the popular amnesiac thriller model, but a book where womanhood seems indivisible from victimhood and where motivation stems either from lust or broodiness feels flawed from the outset. The character analysis in both the book and film is far less interesting than it was in “Gone Girl”, a book with which Ms Hawkins’s has been repeatedly compared. The creation of unpleasant female leads in both books is arguably a defiant feminist act but, put simply, “Gone Girl” did it better. 

“The Girl on the Train” is thrilling, slick, appropriately bleak and largely enjoyable. However, like its source material, it derails in the second half by indulging in stereotypes. Where the houses are so large, there should be heftier characters living inside. 


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