LEARNING TO DRIVE. Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer, Jake weber, and Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Isobel Coixet. Rated M (Coarse language, sex, nudity and mature themes). 90 min.
This British-American comedy-drama tells the story of a successful middle-aged book editor, whose marriage is in disarray and is stunned that her 21-year relationship to her husband has come to an end. It is based on an autobiographical article published by Katha Pollitt in "The New Yorker" magazine in 2002.
Book Editor, Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson), has a bitter quarrel with her husband Ted (Jake Webber) in the back seat of a cab, driven by a gentle Sikh, Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley). Wendy's marriage disintegrates before Darwan's eyes. Wendy's absorption in her work as a book critic in New York has prevented her from seeing that her marriage to Ted, who has been unfaithful to her, is in crisis.
Darwan is a cab driver by night, but a driving instructor by day, and Wendy takes driving lessons from him so that she can drive to her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) who lives in Vermont. Darwan too has his problems. He is waiting to marry Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) who comes across to him from India for an arranged marriage, and Jasleen is a woman he has never met.
As the driving lessons proceed, Darwan and Wendy learn to trust each other and share their opinions on relationships. They begin their friendship with seemingly opposite beliefs, but forge a friendship that teaches both of them to find value and purpose in their lives. The journey for Wendy is toward greater self-sufficiency and independence. The journey for Darwan is to find a way of handling the insecurity he feels about committing himself fully to another person. The developing friendship between them helps to solve the conflicts each is facing.
The chemistry between Kingsley and Clarkson is excellent, and they both bring consummate acting skill to the roles they play in a relatively straightforward plot. The film doesn't attempt to overreach on its drama. It evolves its scenarios predictably, but it does so in a charming and often funny way. The personalities of Darwan and Wendy clash dramatically, but Clarkson and Kingsley play comically off each other with the help of witty and sensitive scripting.
The movie flirts with deeper themes such as anti-Arab sentiment and the complexities of illegal immigration in the US, as well as dealing with obvious differences in philosophical beliefs about the nature of marriage. It explores, for instance, the cultural disparity between Indian and American attitudes to marriage, but makes the moral point tellingly that pursuit of complete freedom without responsible restraint is not a firm basis for a meaningful, intimate relationship.
For the most part, the film stays close to the developing friendship between its two main characters, but the clash of cultures is consistently implicit in how two unlikely people are drawn to each other. Darwan's self-control and quiet demeanour are contrasted repeatedly with Wendy's nervous volatility. Both, however, are compassionate people, and the film paradoxically reinforces the value of forging attachments that truly last.
This film is a feel-good, simple movie about people from different cultures, who struggle in their lives. It is a comic film that observes differences insightfully, and it stays clear of over-reaching on the seriousness of its core themes. It chooses to entertain gently and quietly. The film uses the metaphor of "learning to drive" to explore the necessity to face conflicts in life with eyes wide open in order "to see everything". This metaphor has been used in the cinema before, and is used here with skill by the movie's Spanish Director, Isobel Coixet in a warm way.
The film explores the intricacies of human relationships, and tells us that friendships can be forged meaningfully, but the attachments built to last are the ones that are based on mutual honesty and understanding.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released October 8, 2016