The Thriller to Watch this Valentine's Day: The Girl on the Train #review

At one time or another, we must all have looked out of the window on a train journey and wondered about the lives in the houses, gardens and streets we pass.  Who lives there?  What do they do?  What relationships do they have?  In Paula Hawkins's bestseller, broken Rachel, imprisoned in her own personal hell of alcoholism and misery, becomes obsessed with a girl she sees from the train on her daily commute.

Director Tate Taylor gets to the heart of the novel, almost discounting the murder mystery element, and focussing intently on the three female characters instead.  Each of their secret inner lives, their clandestine thoughts and actions, and inner yearnings are laid bare in a series of sharp vignettes that say much about women in our apparently post-feminist age.

Excellent performances from minor characters, notably the ever-reliable Allison Janney, help cover up some of the inconsistencies and flaws of the novel, and the film generally hangs together well.  Danny Elfman's musical score is exquisite, adding much depth and atmosphere.  Although, alas, I still think you can see the 'twist' coming a mile off - sorry Ms Hawkins!

As in the novel, despite their centrality, the men are almost superfluous to this tale of three Gorgon sisters in their suburban idyll.  Is the three women's shared and separate experience simply three parts of the same whole?  Victims of a society which imprisons women in this suburban Stepford; Sirens stranded on a dry beach.

The middle class, leafy suburb of Ardsley-on-Hudson plays its own part, making these lives seem so normal, yet so damaged that we are inevitably invited to draw comparisons with our own mistakes and foibles.  We are also invited to try out the different lives and horrors of the characters: Rachel's broken despair and desperation, Megan's past and Anna's fragile fa├žade.

Often under-used, Emily Blunt is excellent here as Rachel, every pained nuance etched on her somehow flabby, almost blurred, face.  Yes, she's hardly the 'overweight and ugly' character of the novel, but I think it works.  Riding the train to and from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, she becomes obsessed with Megan (Haley Bennett), a beautiful blonde who seemingly has it all: the elegant home, the handsome husband, the ideal lifestyle.  Having lost everything herself as she descended further into the depths of the vodka bottle, Rachel creates a whole back story and life for Megan, becoming the voyeur that we too are as viewers.  But is any of her vividly imagined scenario true, or is Megan's life actually very, very different?

This fragmented thriller gives us flashbacks into Rachel's past: the ex-husband, the attempts to get pregnant, the descent into drinking as she failed to conceive, the rages, blackouts, and divorce.  Now alone, she sits on the train gulping cheap vodka from her designer water bottle, her emotionless expression echoing the emptiness inside.  But what happened when the beautiful life she had carefully curated for Megan shattered?  Why did she come home covered in mud and blood?  What are her black outs covering up?

As the story unfolds, we gradually join the dots to see how the characters and plotlines connect, in the vein of soap opera or Dickens.  The masks of Stepford wives Megan and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) begin to slip - is it coincidental that they look alike in this suburban paradise?  Does Rachel simply have some kind of borderline personality disorder along with her alcoholism, or is there more to it?  Is being a stay at home mum, as Rachel perhaps wanted and Anna has, enough?  Are we ever truly honest with new lovers about our past?  And what really goes on behind closed doors in the 'burbs - or indeed anywhere?

Told through the eyes of a series of unreliable narrators, personally I found the novel's twists easy to predict and crack, but the film is less transparent.  The story raises plenty of questions about women as perpetrators, collaborators and victims, and I'm not sure it offers any answers.  As an examination of modern woman, this is stark and brutal stuff, but as an exercise in post-feminist empathy and solidarity, well, see for yourself.  At worst, it's a couple of hours of decent entertainment, with a superb central performance from a stumbling, hollow-eyed Blunt.

The Girl on the Train is available on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD now!

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