Learning to Drive

October 9, 2015
Ben Kingsley & Patricia Clarkson in 'Learning to Drive' (2014)
Ben Kingsley & Patricia Clarkson in 'Learning to Drive' (2014)

Learning to Drive is one of those films that spin an entire story around one simple metaphor. For a middle-aged woman, learning to drive is an act of self-determination, a way of taking control of one’s life. Having entered one’s fifties as a passenger there is a profound sense of affirmation in finally getting behind the steering wheel.

That’s the message in a minor but satisfying tale by Catalonian director, Isabel Coixet, whose last notable outing was probably Elegy (2008). That movie also starred Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, although Penélope Cruz stole the show.

The idea for the current film came from a New Yorker piece by American essayist, Katha Pollitt, in which she described her attempts to learn how to drive with a helpful Filipino instructor. Scriptwriter, Sarah Kernochan, has turned Pollitt’s reflections into a comedy-drama about a New York literary critic named Wendy (Clarkson) whose husband of 21 years (Jake Weber) leaves her for a younger woman. This leads to the standard recriminations about having been too preoccupied with work – or rather with “words” – to notice her marriage was failing.

Tiring of self-pity, Wendy decides to learn how to drive so she can visit her daughter, who is living on a farm in Vermont. Her mentor is not a Filipino, but a Sikh, Darwan Singh Tur, who scrapes a living as a driving instructor and taxi driver. This allows Coixet and Kernochan to include a large helping of ‘Exotic India’, topped off by the spectacle of Kingsley in a turban.

The story is evenly divided between teacher and pupil, who meet up for lessons but gradually become friends. Darwan gives patient advice about driving that may be applied to many aspects of Wendy’s fractured life. After a close call on the road he says: “You can’t always trust people to behave.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” she replies.

Despite his philosophical demeanour, Darwan’s domestic arrangements are messy. At the beginning of the film he shares a basement apartment with his nephew and a couple of other Sikhs, although he is the only legitimate American citizen.

His life is about to change with the arrival of Jasleen (Sarita Choudury), a bride specially chosen for him by his sister in the Punjab. This leads to a discussion with Wendy on the merits of an arranged marriage as opposed to a love match. His concern, however, is that Jasleen is uneducated to the point of illiteracy and too shy to leave the apartment.

It seems that Darwan’s mastery is only in evidence when he is in a car.

Kingsley is more convincing as a Sikh than he was as a tycoon with a broad Noo Yawk accent in SelfLess (2015). He has had plenty of opportunities to study Indian accents and mannerisms, as his father was a Gururati, who gave his son the name, Krishna Banji. It was later changed for career reasons.

Every separate theme in this story, whether it be the battle of the sexes, the anxieties of aging, or the prejudices encountered by the refugee, is an invitation for cliché and sentimentality. If the film avoids those pitfalls it is partly due to the quality of acting from Clarkson and Kingsley, and partly because the movie’s threshold of ambition is very modest. Wendy has her breakdowns and her tantrums, but never goes off the rails completely. Darwan is a man of rigid principle, but he allows himself to loosen up from time to time. Everything is eminently plausible.

Needless to say, as Wendy and Darwan spend so many hours together in the car there are glimmers of mutual attraction, but we recognise this as an impossible romance, like the romance by correspondence in that outstanding Indian film, The Lunchbox (2013). It’s a reminder that what touches us most in the cinema is not necessarily the grand love affair, but small, intimate contacts between two personalities from wildly different backgrounds who discover how much they have in common.

Learning to Drive
Directed by Isabel Coixet
Written by Sarah Kernochan, after an article by Katha Pollitt
Starring Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Grace Gummer, Sarita Choudhury, Avi Nash
USA/UK, rated M, 90 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10th October, 2015.