When living in the middle of a major city like New York, knowing how to drive and owning a car doesn’t always take on the same form of necessity as it would somewhere else.
There are trains, buses, and taxis all over the place. And if you’re the kind that rarely leaves the city, why would you need to drive anywhere? This is how NYC book critic and all-round intellectual Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson) has always seen it. She doesn’t drive. She’s never needed to. Besides, whenever there’s been a need, her husband did all the driving. But then it happens.
At the beginning of the new independent film Learning to Drive from director Isabel Coixet, Wendy’s husband of twenty-one years leaves her for another. “Is she one of your students?” Wendy asks. When Ted (Jake Weber) remains silent, Wendy has her answer.
The separation is difficult for Wendy. “I don’t know what I believe about marriage,” Wendy will later say, “Except that it would always be there.” She really doesn’t it take it well, but she clings to the hope that it’s all just a temporary thing. Maybe Ted is simply taking a break, thinking about things, working out a few personal details. He’ll be back. Sure he will. Then Wendy’s daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) visits. “He said he filed for separation yesterday,” Tasha tells her mom. Not only is Wendy now officially alone, she’s stranded in the middle of a city and she can’t get out, not even to visit her daughter; she can’t drive.
Mr. Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley) is an Indian Sikh who drives a cab in the evening and gives driving lessons during the day. He’s a gentle, patient man, a naturalized American citizen who fled his country after an arrest and torture. His crime? He was born Sikh.
Once a distinguished college professor in his homeland, now he lives the single life in a foreign city. Every day he suffers the indignity of racial slurs. Plus, he’s having marriage issues, but his concern is the opposite of Wendy’s. He’s about to get married, and it’s an arranged one. When we first meet Darwan he has never met his bride-to-be. “My sister picked her out for me,” the man explains.
What follows is the meeting of two people who help each other. Wendy signs up for lessons, Darwan instructs. Together the two form a relationship during a critical period in their lives when they probably need each other the most. Timing is everything. They both have something to teach and they both have something to learn. When Wendy fails her first test after losing her concentration at key moments and not breaking for Stop signs until it’s too late, it’s an indication that not only is she not ready to drive, she’s still not ready to accept what’s happened at home. When she’s truly at peace, or at least comfortably adapted to an attitude outside of her previous comfort zone, then maybe she’ll get her license.
Despite Wendy’s rage and the occasional and understandable moment of anger, Learning to Drive is not an angry film. It’s a pleasant, non-threatening ride with gentle humor. There are conflicts to overcome yet you never feel the danger that anything is ever going to get out of hand, even when a couple of local yobs declare, “Hey, Osama!” in the streets and bang with fists on Darwan’s student driving vehicle.
Like Darwan’s overall calm and composed manner, the film has the same gentle nature and calming rhythm throughout. But it also makes Learning to Drive ultimately as unexceptional as its title, even though both leads are terrific when they’re together and equally so when apart. In fact, above all else, it’s Clarkson and Kingsley’s authenticity that anchors this modest film. They give it the weight it needs.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 90 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)