PSYCHOLOGICAL thriller The Girl on the Train doesn’t need any more plaudits, but the accolade it deserves most will probably never feature on an Oscar nominee list. Emily Blunt, who plays sad, unreliable lead character Rachel, should get the gong for “best female screen drunk ever”.
Her portrayal of the excruciating, grubby reality of female alcoholism is, quite simply, the best I have ever seen. It is so realistic, so convincing and so unvarnished that it should be required viewing in schools.
Quite apart from the engrossing storyline (no spoilers here), Blunt’s performance shows how a once-successful and happily married young woman can slide, slowly though inexorably, into dirty-fingernailed misery when the party turns sour.
Her character, drawn from the bestselling book by Paula Hawkins, is a magnificent study of the denial, the blackouts, the loneliness and the vulnerability that come with alcoholism.
And worse, it shows how society reviles a drunk and, in particular, a drunken woman. Nobody believes what she says any more, including — most disconcertingly of all — herself. Her own vodka-sodden memory has become too sketchy to trust.
There have been other powerful depictions of the destruction wrought by alcohol on women drinkers. Toni Collette, for instance, put in a sterling performance as the binge-drinking mother in Glasslands in 2014, but she played a woman who was further along in her descent into alcoholism.
What makes Emily Blunt’s Rachel so noteworthy is that it echoes a reality that has been playing out for real in Ireland over the last two decades. Since 1995, young women have been matching young men, drink for drink and, in some cases, out-drinking them.
Equality at last? Well, there is something in that. Nobody wants a return to the days when women were forced into the snug with a little sherry to keep them sweet. These days, you’re just as likely to see a big creamy pint in front of a woman as a man. Three cheers for egalitarian conviviality.
If only it were so straight-forward.
When it comes to alcohol, women will never be metabolically equal to men. The simple physiological fact is that women’s bodies process alcohol differently to men. That means they can drink exactly the same amount as men, but the concentration of alcohol in their systems will be much higher.
Without meaning to wreck the buzz, women are also far more prone to alcohol-related health risks. According to Alcohol Action Ireland, there’s a long list that includes tissue damage, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, heart disease and alcohol dependence.
Moderation, of course, is the answer yet it’s still surprising to read just how little a woman can safely drink without risking her health. The HSE guidelines say no more than 11 standard drinks in a week (17 for men). To translate that into post-work scoops, it’s roughly the equivalent of a single bottle of red wine (750ml), which comes in at 10.5 units.
That doesn’t leave a drinker a whole lot of wriggle room, which might go some way towards explaining why our emergency departments have seen more female alcohol-related admissions than ever before. When it comes to teenage girls, the hospital visits are even more frequent; up 29% since 1995, compared to 9% for boys.
The picture gets even more depressing. In August this year, Beaumont Hospital liver specialist Prof Frank Murray warned of a surge in liver disease among young Irish women which, he said, was caused by a reckless attitude to drinking.
Deaths in Ireland due to alcohol — three every single day — used to be mainly among older men, but now they are more gendered balanced and include much younger people.
Part of the reason for that, according to Prof Murray, is that people — and in particular women — are radically underestimating how much they drink. To put that in context, he said that drinking a half bottle of wine a night several times a week and a bottle each day at the weekends was enough to cause liver failure.
Like others, Prof Murray has pinpointed the availability of alcohol and affordability as key areas for policy action, though, for the second year running, there has been no increase in the price of the pint in the Budget.
Astounding, however, is what the drinks industry gets away with when peddling its particular poisons.
The so-called pinking of the alcohol market began in the 1990s, but since then the way that the alcohol industry has targeted women with an array of so-called ‘girly’ drinks is not only shameful but downright misleading.
There’s a version of light vodka that’s marketed in a bottle that looks like it belongs on a perfume shelf. It also includes the helpful fact that a glass contains just 81 calories.
Other brands, with words such as Little Black Dress and Cupcakes in the title, have been hailed by women’s magazines as “yummy chick-centric” drinks that are perfect if you want to indulge your girly side and enjoy every fun-filled occasion.
Oh, save us. It’s hard to know which is worse; the manufacturers for dressing up alcohol in blousy frills, or the women’s press for swallowing the bunkum neat.
I’d much prefer to read about the women who feel the need to crack open a bottle of wine after work just to take the edge off, or the women who feel at their best after two vodkas. And let’s hear more from the shot-popping younger women who are going out to get hammered.
Let’s call the drinks industry on its cynical advertising policy which has been trying to lull us into a mellow world of make-believe for far too long.
To be fair to them, they often warn consumers to “enjoy alcohol sensibly”. But it doesn’t always work out like that. Alcohol can be a life-limiting, health-damaging, habit-forming drug. Just ask the Girl on the Train.