LEARNING TO DRIVE
As her marriage dissolves, Manhattan writer Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) takes driving lessons from Sikh instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley) with marriage troubles of his own. In each other's company they find the courage to get back on the road and the strength to take the wheel.
Review by Louise Keller:
Strong performances by Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley make this charming if slight cross culture tale well worth seeing. Clarkson plays a betrayed wife whose passion is books and words while Kingsley's Indian driving instructor has firm views on relationships but little skill with words. The juxtaposition of the two cultures (American and Indian) with their differing views on marriage and relationships takes both characters to a new metaphorical intersection - and we are there for the entire journey. With a script by Sarah Kernochan, Isabel Coixet's film is disjointed at times, relying on the performances to keep us interested. But interested in the characters we are, as they navigate life's twists and turns - just like a car changes lanes and gears to find a new direction.
The story begins with the public unraveling of a marriage in the back of a taxi. As Wendy's (Clarkson) relationship with her adulterous husband (Jake Weber) falls apart, Darwan (Kingsley), in whose cab the accusations take place, becomes an unwilling witness. Slowly we learn about Wendy and Darwan's different lives: she is a literary critic married to her job, while he is a political refugee about to enter into an arranged marriage. Kingsley, who won the Oscar in 1983 for his portrayal of Gandhi, embraces his paternal Indian heritage naturally, as the turban-wearing Sikh.
My favourite scenes are those that play out in the car as Darwan teaches Wendy to drive; the rules of the road being a metaphor for the lessons of life. There's good reason for Wendy to learn how to drive; her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer, excellent) lives in Vermont. We are there as Wendy straps on her seatbelt for the first time in the driver's seat, changes lanes, crosses bridges and overcomes her fears (and road rage) as she conquers the streets between Manhattan and Queens.
The story strand involving Darwan's arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury, lovely) is endearing from the moment he picks her up from the airport and subsequent scenes in which he struggles to forge a meaningful relationship with her. While Wendy learns how to cope with life from Darwan while sitting behind the wheel, Darwan gets tips from Wendy in the areas concerning his private life, although the question of intimacy never arises for the newly weds. This detracts somewhat, as we are left to wonder; unlike the seduction scene between Wendy and a new beau who likes tantric sex.
The film plays sweetly as it gently canvasses issues as diverse as illegal refugees, racism, relationships, marriage and driving a car. It's an engaging diversion but falls short of anything more.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Driving a car is a useful cinematic metaphor for taking control of one's life, and there is a gentle determination behind this film which makes it more engaging than it sounds.
Patricia Clarkson is perfectly cast as Wendy, the wife who, despite having her own successful writing career, suffers a sense of loss when her husband leaves for a younger woman. The clichˇ is not allowed to burden the film too much, and it provides propulsion for the drama. Ben Kingsley carries himself with sturdy formality as the proud Sikh, Darwan, who stumbles into Wendy's life while driving the night shift in Manhattan. But it's as the driving instructor by day that he has the opportunity to teach Wendy about driving a car ... as if living life. They work well together.
Grace Gummer is lovely as Wendy's daughter Tasha, as is Sarita Choudhury as Darwan's arranged wife, although she doesn't quite manage to look as uneducated and unsophisticated as the screenplay make out.
Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words) handles Sarah Kernochan's screenplay with a deft touch, avoiding potential potholes of goo or contrivance. She crafts an edge to the seemingly soft material, enough to make the film a universal story with a variety of elements, including clash of cultures and racial / ethnic identity.
With care for the all important details, Coixet teases out the deeper themes behind Wendy's journey, coupling it with Darwan's rather well.
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LEARNING TO DRIVE (M)
CAST: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Samantha Bee, Avi Nash, Daniela Lavender
PRODUCER: Dana Friedman, Daniel Hammond
DIRECTOR: Isabel Coixet
SCRIPT: Sarah Kernochan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Manel Ruiz
EDITOR: Keith Reamer, Thelma Schoonmaker
MUSIC: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dania Saragovia
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 8, 2015