How do you review a movie when you have already read the book on which the movie is based? Do you simply compare the two, then rate the film according to how closely it matches the book? Or do you divorce the two completely, and approach the film as a stand-alone project completely independent from the original book? Sometimes movie versions are better than the book, and sometimes (probably more often) the original book is superior.
In this case, I read and reviewed the original book, "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins, some months ago on this website – back in August, if I remember correctly. I gave the book a pretty good rap. I found it an exciting and engaging mystery thriller. So, when the movie version arrived, I had to see it, even though I already knew the ending. I think this may be the first time I have reviewed both movie and book.
I must admit, at the outset, I expected to be disappointed by the movie. After all, to start with, the screenwriters shifted the story's location from London to New York. Another piece of American cultural imperialism, I groaned to myself. Why couldn't Hollywood leave well enough alone? What other butchery might they commit upon Paula Hawkins' riveting yarn?
Well, I am very relieved to report that, apart from the shift in location, Hollywood has made a remarkably good job of transferring the original story to film. Apart from setting the story in New York, most of Hawkins' plot turns up in the movie version. I feel the screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, deserves a pat on the back for doing what is actually not a bad job.
This murder mystery is a convoluted story, with new revelations occurring as the story unfolds. Fortunately, the film also reveals its shocks bit by bit. Particularly is this so with the three main characters, Rachel, Megan, and Anna. In the book, these three female characters share the narration. I wondered if this device would be repeated in the movie: it is, and is done quite convincingly, although it is probably fair to say that Rachel bears the lion's share of the narration in the movie.
The usually-excellent Emily Blunt plays Rachel. Once again, Blunt turns in a reliable and convincing performance. Rachel is a sad, difficult character: obsessive, mendacious, an alcoholic – but ultimately dedicated to discovering the truth about Megan's murder. Emily Blunt captures these multiple facets of Rachel. She is on screen for much of the film, and her compelling performance as Rachel is the pivot of the whole film. However, she receives sterling support from Haley Bennett as Megan, and Rebecca Ferguson as Anna. Justin Theroux as Tom, Rachel's ex-husband, should not be overlooked; he gives a very good performance as one of the few major male characters in this story. He has his demons too.
Direction by Tate Taylor is generally very good, with the film being wrapped up in just about two hours. I was quite pleasantly surprised that the movie-makers were able to fit virtually all of Hawkins' complicated plot into a really tense film of reasonable length. If I have one major criticism of the movie, it is the director's tendency to over-rely on close-in head shots. These can be useful if there is a compelling need to portray conflicting emotions on a character's face. If over-used, however, it merely gives a claustrophobic feel to the story. Tate Taylor overdoes this technique here. Result: the moviegoer longs for more wide-angle shots of a room, a street, a train – anything to relieve the claustrophobia of all those facial close-ups.
Perhaps most encouragingly, Hollywood kept the book's ending. But then, as I wrote in my review of the original book, I have a feeling the book's ending was designed with Hollywood in mind. Tinsel Town has not disappointed.
Perhaps in the end it doesn't matter if the story is moved to New York. I must confess I preferred the London setting of the book. However, when the chips are down, the story is a universal one of human and family failings that could take place in any modern, first-world city.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Highly recommended.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * * 1/4