Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley star in this feel-good, coming of (middle) age comedy about a mismatched pair who help each other overcome life's roadblocks Wendy (Clarkson) is a fiery Manhattan book critic whose husband has just left her for another woman; Darwan (Kingsley) is a soft-spoken taxi driver from India, on the verge of an arranged marriage. As Wendy sets out to reclaim her independence, she runs into a barrier common to many lifelong New Yorkers: she's never learned to drive! When Wendy hires Darwan as her teacher, her unraveling life and his calm restraint seem like an awkward fit; but as he shows her how to take control of the wheel, and she coaches him how to impress a woman, their unlikely friendship awakens them to the joy, humor and love of starting life anew.
Learning to Drive is a smart metaphor for all mistakes, hardships and cultural barriers one experiences in life that perfectly illustrate how fragile an individual can be when he is stripped of his power in a given circumstance. It works on both levels: as a direct analogy of 21st century’s bias toward other cultures, and as a reminder that everyone, by looking deeper inside of him – can strive toward betterment. It’s an honest message that is welcome now more than it ever was.
Isabel Coixet’s feature, penned by 9½ Weeks screenwriter Sarah Kernochan is resilient as much as it is open, and by that I mean open to how people can ‘change’. Now, in Learning to Drive, this change comes gradually and without surprise, especially in the sole beginning when Ben Kingsley’s character enunciates a strong determination to help save the shaken marriage of Wendy and Ted (played by Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber respectively) - his first customers for that night.
And it seems Kingley perfectly molds his acting experience to honestly portray a tender Sikh man named Darwan Singh Tur who works as both a driving instructor by day and a cab driver by night. His gentle soul is as altruistic as is it considerate, so Darwan hurries and offers Wendy free driving lessons which she gladly accepts. Of course, Wendy never had to drive previously because that particular duty was assigned to her husband. Meanwhile, we witness Darwan’s choice as he opts for a small loft and adopts the ‘golden’ rule to always be grateful for what one already has in life. This paradigm slowly unravels as a metaphor for individuality which the filmmakers are not afraid to show across the screen at any given time.
What holds this unique experience together is the undeniable chemistry between Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson which elevates the story even further and shows off the human character as it was supposed to be: stripped of the often times absurd and illogical worries that halt an otherwise enjoyable journey toward an unknown destination.
The music is simple and on point, accompanying whatever struggles the protagonists are going through with soft tones and a barely recognizable background track. This is both welcomed and a rarity: I for one personally approve how scribe Sarah chose to elevate the characters’ focal points above all else. For this fact alone, it is possible that Learning to Drive’s cinematography falls on the generic side, but then again – it is a film of words and feelings and not of ‘pretty’ pictures.
If you’re looking for a character-driven drama that feels sincere in its message and portrayal of human feelings thereof – then Learning to Drive just might tickle your fancy.