Title: Learning To Drive
Director: Isabel Coixet
Major Players: Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Sarita Choudury
Out Of Five: 3
I thought I knew exactly what to expect of Learning To Drive. A title like that leads you in one direction, and one only. As it turned out, I wasn’t too far wide of the mark, but I certainly wasn’t bang on target.
So what did I expect? A story about life lessons, wrapped up in the metaphor of taking driving lessons. I got that bit right. Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, a successful literary critic whose husband walks out after 20 years of marriage. Wanting to visit her daughter in Vermont, she needs to learn to drive and takes lessons from Darwan (Ben Kingsley). A politically exiled Sikh, he’s about to embark on an arranged marriage, which brings pressures and problems of its own.
In other words, two people embarking on new phases in their lives, neither of whom are in the first flush of youth. And neither has any control over what’s happening: Wendy’s husband has dumped her for somebody younger, Darwan’s new wife has been chosen for him by his family back in India. Inevitably, teacher and pupil find some common ground and understanding and become friends. There’s even a hint of possible, but one-sided, romance.
It could have been a stretch to transfer Katha Pollitt’s original essay to the big screen as a feature film, but there’s enough here to fill the mandatory ninety minutes and keep the audience’s interest. There’s the Sikh culture, for instance, as Darwan is deeply religious: we see inside the temple, as well as witnessing his traditional marriage. There’s his personal story, too, one that’s already seen radical and enforced change. At home, he was a university professor, a victim of persecution and imprisonment who sought asylum in America and took in his nephew as a favour to his sister. He’s taken American citizenship and has two jobs, cab driver by night, driving instructor by day. His nephew, on the other hand, has no papers and no job.
Age and time are other themes running through the film, all delivered with general warm-heartedness. That’s not necessarily something you associate with a 15 certificate film. Because, alongside all those life lessons learnt behind the wheel, is a certain amount of grittiness, almost as if it aspires to be something harder hitting. The marriage-ending row between Wendy and her husband in the back of Darwan’s cab is full of the language you expect, a blind date arranged by her sister sees her ending up in bed with a tantric sex practising banker (not Cockney rhyming slang) and, horror of horrors, Darwan utters the “f” word. You wouldn’t think he knew it.
It’s very nicely acted, especially by Clarkson and Kingsley, who both convince as the two friends confronting big changes in their lives. Kingsley, however, is at his best in the scenes with his new wife, A Hologram For The King’s Sarita Choudury. Their awkwardness is palpable: not only are they complete strangers, but she’s a disappointment to him, with severely limited English and worse culinary skills.
The ending, as you would expect, is full of hope and optimism. Not that you would expect anything else. You can take as many life lessons as you like from Learning To Drive and feel uplifted at the same time. And, rather like Darwan’s car, it’s an automatic, making for an effortless, if undemanding, watch.
Learning To Drive is released in cinemas on Friday, 10 June and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 9 June.