Adaptations of novels to film are notorious in having two schools of thought once the picture is released – those who read the novel, and those who didn’t. Mine is the second camp, though my fiancee did, and she assures me The Girl on the Train hasn’t survived the transition from page to celluloid well.
A bestseller list hit from debut novelist Paula Hawkins in 2015, The Girl on the Train was fast-tracked into production once the rights were snapped up by Hollywood. They thought they had another Gone Girl on their hands, David Fincher’s well constructed adaptation of Gillian Flynn twisted mirror on the trauma of marriage in 2014 being both a critical and commercial hit. Hawkins’ work has, on paper, plenty of the same psycho-sexual thriller elements which pitch these kind of novels as modern day versions of 80’s or 90’s sex-based thrillers that Joe Eszterhas would pen and Paul Verhoeven might direct.
Would that the film version of The Girl on the Train be so visceral. Tate Taylor, best known for emotional American drama The Help, has neither the perverted, steaming fantasy of Verhoeven or the slick, poised understanding of Hitchcockian thrills of Fincher. What could have been a modern Rear Window meets Fatal Attraction ends up being a damp squib, a plodding, leaden and un-focused film which at just 110 minutes feels more like 180. You have to wonder if it takes skill to direct and edit such a slog of a picture from source material known by many to move with far more impetus and grace.
The source material could well, in some respects, be the problem. Hawkins’ book divides itself between three points of view, the three key women of the story – alcoholic, bitter and tortured Rachel; earnest, slightly haunted mother Anna; and the flighty, promiscuous and lost young Megan. Three very different women who all weave together thematically and in terms of where the narrative takes them. Hawkins’ naturally makes strong use of the inner monologue to convey thoughts and feelings but in Erin Cressida Wilson’s attempt as screenwriter to carry this over visually, we end up with a verbose penchant for exposition and clunky writing to explore what these women think and feel.
Wilson also, for cinematic reasons, channels the main thrust of the story through Emily Blunt’s Rachel; she’s the main star, so it pivots around her, and the plot attempts to construct a scenario where we’re meant to guess whether or not her obsessive madness about two couples who represent everything she lost could drive her to murder. Oddly enough, by the time you’re supposed to ask this question, you probably won’t care. Despite making Rachel the focal point, the story meanders and weaves in reaching its point and trying to explore all three women, Taylor deploying flashback sequences primarily to illuminate Megan which often confuse and sap the drama.
Thematically nonetheless, there’s a lot going on in Hawkins’ work. The Girl on the Train is about obsession, about motherhood and fertility, about subjective reality and ultimately about the abusive nature of man. Not all of it successfully carries over onto the big screen, and that’s a shame as Hawkins’ story is rich with context and subtext. Though Rebecca Ferguson’s Anna gets lost in the shuffle as ultimately just a blindsided mother and wistful ‘other woman’, turns by Blunt and the lesser-known Haley Bennett as Megan are frequently strong, depicting along with Anna three sides almost of the same kind of woman.
Rachel couldn’t conceive, lost the man she loved and the house they lived in, and was eaten up by sadness, rage and melancholy as a result which destroyed her life, and one of the few high points of The Girl on the Train is just how well Blunt steadily portrays a woman staring into the abyss with intensity. Megan, meanwhile, lost a baby tragically as a young girl and subsequently detached herself emotionally from the idea of motherhood while marrying into an union defined largely by sex; Bennett too conveys well her wayward desirability without plunging her into ill-defined cliche. Anna, conversely, has everything neither of the others do but seems a little bored and listless with it.
Taylor’s film manages to convey elements of their complex psychology but The Girl on the Train never successfully probes deep enough, or in trying to play beats to the audience instead serves to bludgeon us over the head with meaning, detail and understanding. Subtlety is not the order of the day, even though amnesia and a lack of self-awareness are key tenets of the mystery built at the heart of the story. Remember the mystery in Gone Girl, though? That had a genuinely ambiguous chill and the subsequent twist has venomous bite; The Girl on the Train, in trying to evoke that film though its every pore, feels an anaemic tribute act.
Everything from Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristic, moody score all the way to the stark Scandinavian cinematography screams covering what Fincher has done in his last two movies. The Girl on the Train doesn’t feel like it has its own identity. Changing the location of the book from a relatively affluent but cramped, unfeeling London to the open, middle-class, WASP-ish plains of New York state doesn’t help in this regard; Blunt oddly half-keeps her British accent despite the fact Rachel is American, suggesting sometimes the film doesn’t understand quite what it wants to be. From a logical point of view alone, a London train would be much more of a believable vessel for Rachel to so expertly spy on the lives of these other women.
The role of men in the film also denigrates and plunges The Girl on the Train late in the day into overblown theatrics. All the way through the picture, men are portrayed as either useless, boorish or just plain psychotic. Edgar Ramirez’ psychologist admittedly factors into the one nice visual slight of hand played by Taylor, but he’s a nothing character ultimately. Luke Evans essentially just growls and looks pained (mostly with his dialogue) while restraining his Welsh brogue where possible. As for Justin Theroux, well… melodrama ends up being the order of the day once we reach the climax. The pot very much boils over but there’s no shade of grey. There is just one-dimensionality.
It’s frustrating because the film has a lot to say about the role of women, about relationships, and about the nature of subjective reality. Rachel throughout struggles with her memory, struggles piecing together thanks to a cocktail of alcohol and trauma, what happened on the fateful night which drives the story, but in beginning to understand these events she realises how for years she has been almost conditioned into believing herself a victim worthy of punishment, a violent, erratic and unreasonable character. She is living with a false version of reality which caused her spiral into obsessive depression. This just doesn’t feel explored enough, despite visual attempts by Taylor in his direction.
The biggest complaint that can be levelled at The Girl on the Train is that if you watch the film first, it doesn’t make reading the book an appealing concept. That’s a shame for Paula Hawkins as by all accounts, the source material is far and away the better vehicle to capture the myriad psycho-sexual themes coursing throughout this story. By the end of this, frankly, you may end up wondering why they bothered.