Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women.
The very first page of Into the Water by Paula Hawkins whose debut novel The Girl on the Train became a global best-seller is a re-imagining of a horrific historic moment. A young girl accused of witchcraft is ‘tested’ by seeing whether the water will accept or reject her. Her death by drowning ‘proves’ her innocence. This is a story of drowned women with a touch of the uncanny to the whole proceedings. One of the central characters is a self-proclaimed psychic who speaks to the dead and is reportedly a descendant of an executed witch. It’s also a story about stories; there’s a double manuscript within the book, including and most especially those stories we tell ourselves. Like The Girl on the Train, Hawkins explores the fluid, imperfect, nature of memory and how easy it is for people to construct false narratives. Which means we are treated to a series of unreliable narrators.
The first such narrator is Jules Abbott a thirty something social worker who’s shocked to learn that her estranged sister Nell has purportedly jumped off the Beckford bridge and left Jules custodian of her teenaged daughter the beautiful, troubled Lena. Beckford’s bridge and infamous ‘drowning pool’ have seen the deaths of many women over the years, including a teenage girl only a few months before. Indeed Nell Abbott had a morbid fascination with the site and was writing a book about it; something that put her on the bad side of a number of local residents. Jules Abbott is forced to confront the past she’s spent over twenty years running from and learns hard truths along the way. Nor is she the only one. There are more than a few secrets in Beckford. Hawkins is working with a larger canvas here than in her debut and with far more characters. It was risky but she pulls it off with a writing style that’s lyrical, elegiac, melancholy, and macabre all at once. It’s a book you’ll want to read in one sitting and the final pages with echo with you long afterwards.
People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep in a performance that while not necessarily Oscar worthy is certainly charming) was a talented young concert pianist who dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately an injury to her hands killed that dream, so Florence decided to go to Carnegie Hall as a singer. There was, however, one problem: Florence couldn’t sing. She was not only bad she was unbelievably, almost hysterically terrible, a fact her nearest and dearest were determined to shield her from.
Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) directs this quaint, bittersweet, little bio which serves as a fable as well. We live in a culture that constantly tells us to follow our hearts and pursue our dreams no matter what. But what if like kindly, sweet, generous, dedicated, but tone deaf Florence, your striving to do something you just can’t do? Scenes of Florence singing aren’t just hard on the ears, they take Cringe Comedy to all new levels. And isn’t indulging her denial just setting her up for a greater fall, as Florence, convinced of her greatness, books a night in Carnegie Hall?
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
These are the questions that come to haunt Florence’s chief enablers; her adoring husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and her accompanist, Cosmo McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory almost unrecognizable here and shockingly good in his first major big screen debut). While Cosmo fears his involvement with Florence dooms his chances of ever being taken seriously as a musician, St. Clair has a host of other complications. Florence and he adore each other, but having contracted syphilis from her first husband, their marriage must remain celibate and indeed St. Clair lives in a separate home with his beautiful young mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson of The Girl on the Train).
As Florence’s health declines, St. Clair feels obligated to make her final days a happy dream. Hugh Grant reportedly came out of retirement just to work with Meryl Streep and it was well worth it. The man may have more grey hair and wrinkles than he did when he first charmed his way into American hearts as a gorgeous British leading man in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but he’s lost none of his charm, his comedic timing and, if anything, his skills at drama have only gotten better with time. It’s his best performance in years. Florence Foster Jenkins is not just the tale of a woman who couldn’t sing, but a love story for grown-ups.
What would you do if you realized that there are aspects of your life that you have completely missed and the truth of what you’ve been living isn’t real? The Girl on the Train doesn’t particularly set out to answer this question, which is a shame. The film, based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, is a mystery thriller that sometimes touches on fascinating aspects of character development, only to then turn into a Lifetime film with a bloody and unsatisfying end.
“She’s everything I lost. She’s everything I want to be,” says Rachel (Emily Blunt) as she creepily watches Megan (Haley Bennett), a complete stranger to her, from the train. The obsession with watching Megan is, in part, due to the fact that Rachel’s own life is a miserable one and she believes the life the other woman leads to be one of perfection. Rachel rides the train into Manhattan everyday, sits in the same car, and watches Megan be happy with her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). We discover fairly soon that Rachel used to live two houses down from Megan, once sharing a home with her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), who left her to be with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).
Rachel’s stalking and curiosity eventually find her in the middle of an investigation after Megan disappears without a trace. An alcoholic who constantly blacks out, Rachel finds herself plunged into a mystery that places her at the scene of Megan’s last known location. With no alibi, she takes it upon herself to find out what happened, involving herself in a situation that reveals connections and truths she isn’t quite prepared for.
It’s the thrill of the chase and mystery of the disappearance. The characters kind of take a back seat and in a lot of ways, the plot drives the story, not the other way around. Told largely through Rachel’s perspective, we become privy to the fact that something is amiss early on. Her memory isn’t always reliable and makes the unfolding mystery easier to tell because of it.
However, the film is less concerned with expanding on Rachel’s story. We understand later the truth behind certain events and how they were twisted in her memory, but the skipping around between flashbacks and present day disentangle us from the central characters. Sure, there is some sympathy to go around, but because it never really delves into certain character’s motivations, the rapport we may have had with any of them often falls flat.
Tate Taylor’s direction is unable to adapt to the flow of the plot. Emily Blunt’s performance saves the movie from going completely off the rails, clearly portraying Rachel’s emotional instability and constant weariness in every scene, adding weight to an otherwise weightless script. On the flip side, Haley Bennett does well with the little she’s given, adding some depth to Megan’s story, while Rebecca Ferguson gets the short end of the stick. Ultimately, however, The Girl on the Train shortchanges its characters for mystery and shock value, culminating in a bloody finale. But it’s all too underwhelming, stagnant, and the film’s ending, especially, leaves a lot to be desired.
The Girl on the Train opens nationwide October 7, 2016.