Janet W., Here…
Learning to Drive opens at the completion of driving instruction with Darwan Singh Tur (Sir Ben Kingsley) speaking words of wisdom and reality to his student driver. Next we are guided through a typical day of a hardworking Indian in America. Two jobs and a house full of relatives/friends from his village, Darwan is a stereotype of who Indians are. I do not like stereotypes whether factual or not. People are curvy (multi-faceted) and should not be pressed into any particular box/label. However, in Learning to Drive, I see the Indian stereotype treated with honor and maybe even understanding. I do not follow the Sikh religion nor do I understand it, but the worship was portrayed with reverence.
Kudos to Isabel Coixet, the director, for her vision! It is that element along with the exceptional work of Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, and Sarita Choudhury (who I am seriously glad to see in this film). As a dual-focused narrative, we follow the failing marriage of Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) and Ted (Jake Weber). Wendy and Ted’s path cross with Darwan during his night job as a taxi driver. Darwan listens the demise of their marriage happening in the backseat.
I cannot say enough about the brilliance of Oscar-winning Sir Ben Kingsley. He is phenomenal in his ability to dawn the guise of so many strange (Iron Man 3), wondrously twisted (Stonehearst Asylum), esteemed (Gandhi) characters. Kingsley just sees the truth of the character and makes them walk off the page. I didn’t remember at first that this wasn’t the first time Kingsley and Clarkson had worked on a set together (Shutter Island). They play well off each other. I’ll never forget Clarkson in Friends with Benefits as Lorna and also as Lois McNally in Simply Irresistible. She cracked me up. On the flipside, she broke my heart and inspired me as Melinda Moores in The Green Mile (Remember? She was the brain tumor stricken wife of the warden).
In Learning to Drive, Clarkson takes you through the emotional roller coaster. Wendy is a book critic that has seemingly lost all semblance of a personal life (husband and daughter) leaving her with her real first love, words. Her daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), aspires to be a farmer and thus is miles away from Wendy’s beloved Manhattan. Thus, Wendy is compelled to bite the bullet and learn to drive. Choudhury is a longtime favorite Indian actress of mine ever since I saw her in Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love and Mississippi Masala. Choudhury is like Kingsley in that she can pull the heart of a character out into the open, excellent. In Learning to Drive, Choudhury plays Jasleen, Darwan’s bride from his home village. Imagine moving to a new world to marry a complete stranger. Such strength of character it must take to leave your family and homeland. Darwan’s nephew, Preet (Avi Nash), was definitely the hottie of the film. My goodness, he is gorgeous even with all of that facial hair. His character’s presence is minimal, but I hope to see what he can do in the future.
The messages of the film: life goes on even after horrible events, never quit, and that love can cross the largest divides come across well. The film lacks a sense of pacing to maintain both interest and engagement. It took nearly 20 minutes or so for the laughs to come. It was somewhat dull and humdrum in the beginning. After that, the laughs are timely and frequently. The matter of fact delivery of both Kingsley and Clarkson works so well. I was both glad and disappointed that what I wanted to happen in the story did not happen. To have an insight into the challenges of Indians in America (ICE, being held back from better jobs because they choose to stick to their culture instead of assimilating, and finding their path in a new country) was an educational experience. I know, it’s a movie, but you would be surprised at what truths and knowledge can be gleaned from a film, suspension of disbelief, right? One thing I immensely enjoyed was the film’s score. It was a brilliant mixture of sitar and contemporary popular musical beats. I loved the blend.
Learning to Drive is an inspirational film, but I fear some people may miss this gem because of their lack of curiosity of other cultures. Some people just watch everything handed to them plot, theme, etc. The film is quite slow paced and abrupt, but that is not its only failing. The hallucinations experienced by Wendy are not well distinguished from reality and I didn’t see the need for them. Also, the transitions were oddly contrived and didn’t make much sense to me. Since Learning to Drive was filled from the middle to the end with brilliant quips of sarcasm and puns, I could not rate this film too low. Give it a try. ‘Learning to Drive‘ is now showing at Angelika Film center in Dallas.
3.5 out of 5 Stars
– Janet L. White