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Published September 29th 2015
A gentle and humorous film about life's unexpected detours
Learning to Drive tells the story of two very different people at a time of great upheaval in their lives. Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley) is a driving instructor by day as well as a night-time taxi driver. A political refugee, he shares a cramped apartment with a nephew and an assortment of single countrymen while his sister in India pesters him about an arranged marriage. Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) is a busy, affluent literary critic who lives for her work, with the result that her husband Ted (Jake Weber) dumps her for another woman. Darwan and Wendy meet when she leaves a package in his cab on the night Ted moves out.
Like many New Yorkers Wendy has never learned to drive, but she wants to visit her daughter (Grace Gummer) who is living on a remote Vermont farm. She signs up for lessons from Darwan and thus begins an uneasy relationship. Wendy is nervous and defensive whereas Darwan remains calm and reflective. Over time, as they get to know each other, the driving lessons become a metaphor for the changes they are both facing, Wendy is about to lose her house in the divorce and Darwan will soon meet Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), the woman his sister has chosen for his bride. Meanwhile, he advises Wendy to breathe and pay attention as "You can't always trust people to behave properly."
Darwan, however, does indeed behave properly. He remains an observant Sikh, refuses to fight back against numerous instances of racial abuse, and marries Jasleen even though she is older and barely literate. His quiet steady manner soothes the irritable Wendy and a real friendship develops, to the benefit of both.
The scenes between Kinglsey and Clarkson are the best in the film. Director Isabel Coixet also directed the pair in 2008's Elegy and they are good friends in real life with an easy camaraderie which is evident here. Some of the other characters are less well-drawn – Ted, the ex-husband, and daughter Tasha only appear briefly. Jasleen's struggle to adapt also deserved a more in-depth look. In this sense the film is perhaps trying to address too much – racism, sexism and other cultural problems, when its real purpose is to examine how two strangers help each other to move forward with their lives. In this, the film succeeds very well and their story is told with humour and affection.
Learning to Drive Directed by Isabel Coixet
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, Avi Nash, Daniela Lavender, Harpreet Singh Toor, Samantha Bee and John Hodgman