Starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, Learning to Drive is a gentle, touching comedy about life changes and growing up “later in life.” Directed by Isabel Coixet (who worked with the two stars earlier in Elegy – 2009) and based upon an article written by feminist author Katha Pollitt, (then turned into a screenplay by Sarah Kernochan) this could be seen as an older “chick flick.”
In reality, the film is more of a “coming of age” tale, coming at a time in life where sudden change can mean a temporary return to the insecurities of childhood, even when this happens to a protagonist in her mid-50s. An unfaithful husband leaving his wife; Wendy (Clarkson) and a man ready to marry a bride he has never met; Darwin (Kingsley) meet and change each other’s lives.
Wendy’s husband takes her to a restaurant to reveal he is leaving her. As the couple storm from the eatery and grab a cab, driven by Darwin, they argue and continue the fight that began in the restaurant. Ted (Jake Weber) gets out and tells Darwin to drive Wendy home. Once the cab reaches her home, she gets out and leaves a parcel in the vehicle.
Darwin shows up later to return the envelope and Wendy notices he is a driving instructor as well as a cab driver. She asks for his card and decides that she now must learn to drive. Learning to Drive follows these two disparate people who each teach the other something about life, trust and observation.
Wendy is a book critic with a grown daughter and a husband who has left her for another woman, an author she actually admires. Darwin is a Sikh who was imprisoned in India and took political asylum in America. The former university professor drives a taxi cab and works as a driving instructor.
Darwin’s sister in India chooses a woman for him to marry and this means that, like Wendy, his life is now in turmoil as well. With both people facing huge changes in their separate worlds, they learn from one another. Wendy, learns to take control of her life and Darwin learns to adapt.
This film is rich in character study and looks closely at how people interact on a personal level. We follow Wendy and Darwin during their lessons. These driving tutorials reveal much about both people and the film also peeks at their lives outside the lessons.
Kudos to Clarkson for appearing nearly nude for her “love scene” at 55. The Oscar nominated actress owns her character from frame one and the audience gets behind the woman who faces this mid life direction change because of an unfaithful husband.
Kingsley gives the sort of relaxed performance that one expects from an Academy award winner and looks much younger than his 71 years. Appearances aside, this is the sort of character that the actor could portray in his sleep and the chemistry between Kingsley and Clarkson is sheer magic.
Grace Gummer has a cameo as the daughter caught between the soon to be divorced parents. There is something infinitely watchable about the real life daughter of Meryl Streep. When Grace is on screen the gaze is immediately drawn to her character and when she is not in the shot, one longs for more Grace.
Jake Weber acts his socks off when he is on screen, although there is not a lot of screen time for his character as Ted becomes peripheral after the break up.
This tale of discovery is not really one “just for the girls.” Fans of gentle comedy, with a touch of romance and a little truth will enjoy this film. Coixet’s direction is firm and she guides the story smoothly and with feeling. The script if full of dialogue that amuses and entertains on many levels.
Learning to Drive is up for a number of awards, Best Actress, Best Actor, Director and Best Original Score. If one takes a moment to read the original article by the source author Katha Pollitt it would not be surprising if Sarah Kernochan gets the gong for Best Adapted Screenplay. (Remember you heard it here first…)
This is an enjoyable 5 out of 5 star film. Everyone hits the right notes to make this a touching comedy about changes that gently serves up its message. Watch this one and smile…a lot.