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USA 2014
Directed by
Isabel Coixet
105 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Learning To Drive

Synopsis: New York writer, Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), has just been left for another woman by her husband Ted (Jake Weber). Finally accepting that he is never coming back, Wendy realises she needs to learn to drive. Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian Sikh taxi driver, is on the verge of an arranged marriage, with bride-to-be Jasleen (Sarita Choudhoury) coming out from India. To earn extra money, Darwan also gives driving lessons and Wendy becomes his pupil.

Nay-sayers will brand this film schmaltzy and contrived; but yea-sayers like me will love the understated articulation and the pitch-perfect performances by two actors at the top of their game.

Spanish-born director, Isabel Coixet who has directed a few interesting films, my favourite being My Life Without Me, has a way of eliciting performances that are touching, humorous, yet feel absolutely authentic, and does so again here. Ben Kingsley, forever to be remembered for Gandhi, brings more of the calmly philosophical Indian world-view to his role. Darwan is a restrained, patient and softly-spoken man but Kingsley (whose birth name is Krishna Bhanji and who is of Gujarati extraction) never overplays the Indian card. Darwan remains throughout a real human being, not a stereotype. Wendy by contrast is emotional and outspoken. The opening scene in which she and Ted have a screaming match in the back of Darwan’s taxi is quite unforgettable. After this, it’s no surprise she and Darwan start off awkwardly yet they soon learn to adjust to each other with Wendy, with her humour and transparent emotions, influencing him to express his inner feelings more. The interplay between the two actors is a treat to watch.

Whilst much of the action, of course, takes place behind the wheel, with driving acting as a metaphor for other aspects of life, there are many other settings and interactions to engage the viewer. Wendy’s rural-dwelling daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), is instrumental in forcing Wendy to learn to drive, whilst Jasleen is a catalyst for Darwan to learn how to cohabit with a woman. Comments Darwan makes about arranged marriages, and other people knowing you better than you know yourself give food for thought, whilst the different types of loneliness experienced by Darwan, aging and initially wifeless in a foreign land, and by Jasleen, a newcomer in a land she doesn’t understand with a man she doesn’t know, add extra layers to the tale. Adding a touch of real life are the allusions to illegal immigration, and post 9/11 prejudices against people wearing turbans whilst the insight into Sikh life and rituals are a bonus in the film..

It is, however, the gentle humour and the vision of friendship between two very different people that makes this film such a treat. Seeing people beaten down by life yet still able to find laughter and hope is always uplifting and having the film refuse to go in directions we may have hoped for or expected gives it a further brownie point.

Although low-key, Learning to Drive is so sweet and beautifully realised it makes for a delightful and rewarding cinema outing.




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