D: Isabel Coixet / 90m
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, Avi Nash, Samantha Bee, Matt Salinger
When literary critic Wendy Shields (Clarkson) learns that her twenty year-plus marriage to husband Ted is over, and he’s leaving her for someone else, she does so in the back of a cab being driven by Indian Sikh Darwan Singh Tur (Kingsley). In the wake of such a disastrous journey, Wendy receives a visit from her daughter, Tasha (Gummer), who is away working on a farm. Tasha wants her mother to come visit her but Wendy doesn’t know how to drive (and doesn’t want to learn). But when Darwan returns an envelope she left in his cab, she discovers he’s also a driving instructor. Plucking up her courage she begins to take lessons, and in doing so, finds that she’s able to deal with the new challenges in her life.
Meanwhile, Darwan is looking out for his nephew, Preet (Nash), who is in the country illegally. He’s also dealing with calls from his sister back in India who’s busy arranging a bride for him. When she arrives, Jasleen (Choudhury) isnt quite what Darwan expected; they have little in common, she’s afraid to leave their home, and Darwan is beginning to have feelings for Wendy. As their friendship develops, both Wendy and Darwan are faced with a similar problem: in facing the future, how can they use what they’ve learned from each other and be happy.
The second collaboration between Coixet, Clarkson and Kingsley after Elegy (2008), Learning to Drive is a less dramatic affair but still has some poignant things to say about relationships and the effects of loneliness when they’re taken away. Darwan has come to the US and found citizenship through seeking political asylum; he shares a basement property with several other Sikhs, most of whom are there illegally like his nephew. When they are arrested, and Preet goes to live with his girlfriend, Darwan sees his new bride as a way of avoiding being alone. Wendy, however, realises that she’s been alone for some time, even while married, but doesn’t realise at first just how used to that she’s become. As she and Darwan learn more about each other, so they learn to use the strength that believing in each other brings to both of them.
Clarkson and Kingsley have a great on-screen chemistry, and both give exemplary performances, displaying ranges of emotion both below and above the surface that leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the sincerity of their portrayals. The movie allows for humour as well, with Wendy’s blind date, Peter (Salinger), offering the kind of second date arrangement that won’t be heard in any other movie. Coixet directs with the knowledge that Sarah Kernochan’s script – itself based on a New Yorker article by Katha Pollitt – is a little lightweight in places, but this doesn’t stop her from focusing on the characters and their predicaments with a sympathetic eye. In the end, it’s a movie that stands or falls on the quality of its two leads’ performances, and thankfully, that isn’t something Learning to Drive has to worry about.
Rating: 7/10 – sometimes bittersweet, occasionally genuinely moving, Learning to Drive isn’t about learning to drive but rather about learning to reconnect, something that Wendy and Darwan have forgotten how to do; a simple pleasure then, but one that can be revisited from time to time and still be found rewarding.