REUNITING after working previously on 2008’s Elegy, the team of Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson and director Isabel Coixet bring in Learning to Drive, a delightful drama that meets its success thanks to its lead actors.
When literary agent Wendy (Clarkson) finds out that her husband is leaving her, her life falls into a whirlpool of emotions and uncertainty.
Whilst on her way home during which she learns of her husband’s infidelity, she is driven by a warm Sikh taxi driver Darwan (Kinglsey) who also works as a driving instructor. When she leaves a parcel in his cab, he delivers it to her, where she persuades herself to start driving lessons when it becomes clear she may have to move out of the more public transport-friendly city.
In the case of Darwan, he finds himself in a marriage arranged by his family, thus showcasing the effect that being married with someone struggling with integration has. Wendy meanwhile attempts to find new meaning in her post-marriage life and it is the journey the two undergo during her driving lessons that help each other gain a better understanding of what life has to offer.
The film itself does feel slightly conventional, but it is because of how much we care about the characters that we are able to enjoy the film as it moves forward.
Neither character couldn’t be more apart from the ones that Kingsley and Clarkson played in their respectable previous collaboration Elegy, where a relationship pretty much based on sex was the main ground for their characters.
Here, Coixet allows them to play characters where that is never on the agenda and that respect and friendship is what counts given the awkwardness that each finds in their respective private lives.
To those familiar with that work, this plays as an entertaining work due to the diversities of the roles that both leads form under Coixet’s direction.
The more interesting of the two lies with Darwan, who shares his life story in regards as to how he was once a professor in Punjab who was tortured and interrogated with his family by the state’s government, and fled to New York for a new life. Detailing his commitment to family, one sequence depicts his home being invaded by police who arrest a relative who is illegally living with him, yet Darwan is able to escape the same fate by remarking his citizenship came in 2000, right on the wire as the officer points out.
The fact that his cocky nephew avoids the same fate by cleverly hiding in a cupboard and leaving his uncle’s house to marry a Jewish woman to claim asylum depicts the viewpoint that in his private life, ot everything is happy-go-lucky the way his professional life suggests.
It also plays as an interesting social commentary, depicting the struggles that even long into his life in America, Darwan undergoes. When a conversation with him and Wendy overextends to the rainy evening, not a good time to be doing driving lessons, she accidentally crashes their car into the back of another. The racist response from the infuriated driver to Darwan who proceeds to throw his turban on the ground in fury before the situation is quickly dissolved by the police does make for infuriating viewing. It also allows us to get a glimpse into the uncomforting area of people being judged over things that have no relevance.
A later scene where Darwan’s wife is ignored by a shopkeeper presumably due to her background only to be chastised by a fellow immigrant who helps with her community integration supports Coixet’s success at detailing the adversities.
Darwan is arguably one of the more likeable characters that will appear in a film this year due to his pleasant accepting and warm demeanour, not to mention his ability to help as a sincere driving instructor. The advice he dishes to his clients suggests someone who really does care and watching him undergo obstacles that prevent his life from being a complete delight do make one feel great pity for him.
We are also encouraged, on a different scale, to feel for Wendy, given the breakdown of her marriage, notably when her daughter reluctantly reveals that she is planning on living with her father. The dilemmas that each person goes through allows them to be connected in this life-goes-on strategy where their relationship can bring some positivity in an ever-increasing difficult world.
Learning to Drive is nothing spectacular, but is still a likeable piece to see thanks to two actors who invite us into their characters’ worlds and make it a worthwhile visit.