Lawrence Toppman

‘Girl on the Train’ works when it’s Blunt, droops when it’s subtle

Watch the trailer for 'Girl on the Train'

Emily Blunt stars in the film adaptation of the 2015 debut novel by British author Paula Hawkins.
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Emily Blunt stars in the film adaptation of the 2015 debut novel by British author Paula Hawkins.

It’s difficult to say why “The Girl on the Train” doesn’t fully succeed.

Perhaps I expected the taut storytelling of the novel, with its constant shifts inside the heads of the characters; the movie attempts the same device, then mostly abandons it.

Maybe I figured Emily Blunt was well-cast as Rachel, the alcoholic commuter who travels to and from London and invents fantasies about people she sees from her train window. She’s not overweight and unattractive, as Rachel was in the book, but she’s a fine actress. Yet good as she is, she’s as out of place in this version – which was needlessly moved to New York – as a tea scone amid cheese steaks. (And the woman playing her sister is from New Jersey.)

Perhaps I glossed over coincidences I encountered in the book. Two loom glaringly large onscreen, and one scene depends on police doing something they never do. Not sometimes – never.

Maybe other casting doesn’t fly. Justin Theroux barely changes expressions or intensity as Tom, who divorced Rachel to marry his mistress. Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez, so good as Roberto Durán in “Hands of Stone,” is supposed to be a therapist from the Middle East named Kamal Abdic – who breaks into Spanish when he’s stressed!

Somehow, the elements don’t add up as they did on the page, and Tate Taylor’s leisurely direction doesn’t help. People who have not read Paula Hawkins’ novel and wonder what the fuss was about will get a passable facsimile here, but people who did read it may mostly see small missed opportunities.

There are six main characters. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) now lives with Tom and their infant daughter in the suburban home that Rachel once occupied and now visits with unnerving frequency. (Her name may be a play on the German word “rache,” meaning “revenge.”)

Down the street live Megan and Scott (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans). He wants a baby; she wants sex with any man she has known for more than a day. When she goes missing, the cops (led by wry Allison Janney) logically suspect him; Rachel has doubts, but the boozy cloud in which she floats obscures her thinking.

Because this cinematic universe is small, we know the explanation has to lie among these half-dozen people. (One outside suspect in the book is irrelevant.) The ending may not be a shock if you reason it out, though people gasped at the sneak preview.

Taylor and writer Erin Cressida Wilson try to give the story extra heat with brief, steamy sex scenes. But those don’t shock us, perhaps because Taylor’s careful not to show any naughty bits; the segments feel obligatory, not organic.

“Train” makes its strongest impact in Blunt’s hands. Her vulnerability brings pathos to every scene she enters, making you wish the whole film could have been told through Rachel’s bleary eyes – and set in England, where she belongs. But it’s a pleasure to see her anywhere.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Girl on the Train

1/2

Cast: Emily Blunt, Justin Theroux, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramírez.

Director: Tate Taylor.

Length: 112 minutes.

Rating: R (violence, sexual content, language and nudity).

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