I haven’t read Paula Hawkins’ bestseller The Girl on the Train, but clearly enough of its pages were turned worldwide to make a movie adaptation inevitable – and to merit said film opening in the same release spot as the similarly hyped Gone Girl landed in two years ago. The big screen exposed the essential (and essentially grim) post-feminist cynicism of the Flynn/Fincher project, while spawning a thousand long-forgotten thinkpieces; its successor, all but a trainwreck, merely led me to wonder what it says about us, that we should be drawn in such numbers to stories such as these.
To some degree, I can understand the fascination. Hawkins’ conceit was to set three different women, coming from three very different places, to looking at one another’s lives, and to watch them drawing (generally false) conclusions. So it is that lonely commuter Rachel (Emily Blunt in this telling) gazes longingly out at the spacious property she passes every morning and night, marvelling at its satisfied wife-mother (Rebecca Ferguson) and her much-desired nanny (Haley Bennett). Rachel reckons they have it all; in fact, this house is rife with internal tensions – a status made clear when one of its occupants goes AWOL.
The book, Times journo Hawkins’ last shot at a literary career, played out around the London suburbs, reportedly lending its mystery a degree of everyday realism; the movie, produced by DreamWorks and directed by The Help’s Tate Taylor, scales up somewhere in America and immediately raises plausibility questions – like, when did Nicholas Sparks-style dream homes ever back directly onto a railway siding? This story’s become bigger and taller, forever detaching itself from reality: Rachel’s alcoholic tendencies are now signalled by the decanting of an entire vodka bottle into a two-gallon Slurpee cup.
Granted, this protagonist is readymade to be embraced as another of recent pop culture’s messy heroines: a tipsily unreliable focal point, she not only walks blindly into a meeting with a potential murderer, but finds her eyes straying onto his exposed pelvic V. Yet Movieland’s need to cut to the chase leaves her looking more of a liability than anybody really needed. It takes just twenty minutes for Blunt’s Rachel to melt down over somebody she’s glimpsed maybe four times in passing; the obsession developed over the course of several chapters is never allowed time here to take hold.
She’s not the only one left babbling and gabbling. Taylor’s crosscutting between perspectives feels far less assured than Hawkins’ must have been to have held so many in its grip: it doesn’t take long before we’ve lost all bearing as to who’s in this house when, doing what to whom. I’m guessing the producers, knowing they were onto a sure thing, turned a blind eye to this. The assumption is that the millions who invested in the paperback will already know, and won’t mind unduly that the storytelling has been so horrendously botched.
The tragedy is that there are people here who might just have pulled the material into surer shape. Hopes briefly rise when a leather-jacketed Allison Janney strides into shot as the no-nonsense detective investigating the missing-persons case, but we’re simply never in her company often enough, and it doesn’t matter how capable the other actors are when they’re stuck playing characters you don’t like and cannot trust. It’s a less toxic variant, but it’s the Gone Girl problem all over again: after the initial introductions, you just want to pack up and leave the room, and perhaps the planet, too.
On the page, such provocatively postmodern identity parsing might well have worked – or at least retained the attention during one’s own long and fruitless commute: the roaming imagination is a wonderful thing. Literalised on screen, however, no matter that the action is still underpinned by that self-same longing for whatever’s on the other side of the picket fence, The Girl on the Train keeps coming up with exactly the kind of risible-resistible nonsense you might hear from a drunkard on the last train out of Marylebone on a Saturday night. My advice: disembark.
The Girl on the Train is available on DVD through EOne.