The Girl on the Train review: “Emily Blunt strikes a deft balance between porcelain fragility and eerie menace”

The casting of Emily Blunt as a dumpy alcoholic might have raised eyebrows, but her compelling performance lifts an otherwise safe big-screen take on the Paula Hawkins mystery

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★★★

Being faithful isn’t always a virtue, especially when it comes to adapting a novel as widely read as Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. You need to add a little something extra. 

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Director Tate Taylor (The Help) has created a very neat (if rather too tidy) domestic thriller, but he hasn’t exploited the medium to bring anything fresh to the story, riding instead on the solid track the book provides.

Relocating the action from London to New York only serves to get more American bums on seats, and the casting of the usually fresh-faced Emily Blunt as a dumpy alcoholic has had some fans bemoaning a lack of authenticity. Even Hawkins was sceptical and, yes, Blunt is still beautiful after being made up to look ruddy-faced and shrouded in a heavy grey coat. 

But Blunt also represents the one compelling deviation to the story. Her anti-heroine, Rachel, comes across as more tragic for looking like the kind of woman others might envy, with those sparkling blue eyes turned poignantly glassy with sorrow. 

On her daily commute to Manhattan, she sips vodka while gazing out of the window, paying special attention to the road where she used to live with her former husband (Justin Theroux). He has a new life now with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who is fed up with Rachel’s loitering. But it’s the couple’s neighbour Megan (Haley Bennett) who becomes Rachel’s most dangerous obsession.

Megan is an ethereal beauty, and judging by glimpses of her looking whimsical on the balcony with husband Scott (Luke Evans), Rachel imagines she has the perfect life. Scenes shot from Megan’s point of view tell a different story, and though it’s a tricky double-act for Bennett to pull off, she doesn’t have the presence or power on screen that would have made the clash more resonant.

The real intrigue comes when Megan goes missing, which is around the same time that Rachel has one of her booze-induced blackouts. She knows she was in the area at the time of the disappearance, and the morning after her head is bloodied. But she can’t remember if, or how, she is involved. Alison Janney is fearsome as the hard-nosed cop who tries to bully a confession out of Rachel, with Blunt striking a deft balance between porcelain fragility (on the verge of cracking) and eerie menace.

Taylor uses Rachel’s fractured memories along with other flashbacks to Megan’s unhappy home life to gradually build a picture of what happened, and while this creates a dark and spellbinding air of uncertainty, in the end Rachel only remembers key details at convenient moments. 

A few small holes in the plot don’t break the spell, but they are more obvious on film where a novel can bridge those gaps with other deeper, psychological insights.  

Where the film does gain some depth is in observing the way Rachel ingratiates herself with Scott. It speaks volumes about her neediness, and also her haplessness, because by trying to help him she bolsters a theory that he killed his wife. Whatever Rachel does, she is damned, but the cleverness of the conceit is that, in another film (a yuppie thriller from the 1980s like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, or Single White Female), Rachel would be deemed the femme fatale.

An annoying, overblown finale disturbs the balance just as Rachel is beginning to come to terms with the person she has become – or always was. She reckons that, “I’m not the girl I used to be,” and it’s that particular jigsaw puzzle, made up of Rachel’s bad choices and deepest insecurities that, however disturbing at times, draws you along on the winding journey. 

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The Girl on the Train is released in cinemas on Wednesday 5 October


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