By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
A sweet film with a lot of heart, Learning to Drive is definitely not a film that begs for the big screen treatment. In fact it really does feel like a movie that was meant for television. Still, I do not necessarily mean that in a negative way. The film does have some lovely messages, interesting characters, and entertaining moments; however, it really does feel like a made-for-television movie, but not one of the corny and cheesy variety. Written by Sarah Kernochan, directed by Isable Coixet, and starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, Learning to Drive is actually delightful, but not a movie I’d highly recommend for theatrical viewing.
Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy Shields, an intelligent author and professor whose marriage is coming to an end after she and her husband Ted (Jake Weber) have struggled to keep their love alive. Wendy, as smart as she is, has actually been quite dependent on her soon-to-be ex for several activities of daily living, including transportation. Never having learned to drive and now wanting a license, Wendy enrolls in a driving school run by Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley). Darwan is an Indian Sikh immigrant who works hard as both a driving instructor and a cab driver to make a decent living for himself in New York City. Darwan’s brand of stern, but patient teaching is just what Wendy needs to break out of her ex-husband’s once protective shell and allows her to develop some independence in more ways than one.
Kernochan and Coixet’s film mostly works due to the development of the characters and the performances of the two leads. The film does have some slow and dull moments, but certainly has some compelling ones. Both of the parallel stories (Wendy and Darwan) make for some absorbing and relevant storytelling, particularly that of Darwan. Darwan’s story involves the struggles that immigrants (both of the legal and illegal varieties) face when coming to the U.S. The United States may be the land of opportunity and a safe have for some, but the problems of starting anew, culture shock, and racial profiling can be major setbacks for those who come here.
Wendy’s story is one of finding independence and empowerment. The writing and development of this story is probably less moving and powerful than Darwan’s, but still interesting enough. I did find it fascinating that a character, as smart and strong willed as she, would be so weak in certain areas of her life. The collision of Darwan and Wendy’s paths make for some lovely moments and actually goes into territory that becomes not so transparent and predictable. Clarkson and Kingsley share a lovely chemistry in their scenes and both deliver great performances.
The movie also features solid work by Jake Weber, Grace Gummer, and Sarita Choudury. Some of the jokes fall a bit flat for me, and I found myself a tad bored during some of the duller moments. Still, I would highly recommend this film for viewing on video once it becomes available. Because of the relevance of its story content and the beautiful portrayal of a friendship between two striking different characters, I feel this movie deserves a broad audience.