Thursday, September 3, 2015

Kingsley, Clarkson elevate 'Learning to Drive'

An odd-couple story built on a woman's search for control of her life.
Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson play an interesting duet in Learning to Drive, a movie about a New York woman who responds to end of her marriage by taking driving lessons.

This may seem like a trivial premise, but during the years I lived in the mass-transit world of Manhattan, I knew many people who didn't drive. Some never even bothered to obtain licenses.

Based on a 2002 autobiographical New Yorker article by Katha Pollitt, Learning to Drive introduces us to Clarkson's Wendy, a woman at an emotional low point in what seems an otherwise successful life.

It doesn't take long for Kingsley's Darwan to enter Wendy's world, bringing with him hope for transformation.

A Sikh who had been a political prisoner in India, Darwan has been granted asylum in the US, and now lives in Queens, N.Y.

Obviously bright and capable, Darwan chooses to support himself driving a taxi at night and giving driving lessons by day because he doesn't want to abandon the beard and turban that help define his identity as Sikh.

As directed by Isabel Coixet (Elegy), Learning to Drive becomes a tasteful (and perhaps overly tame) look at two people from different worlds.

Although this sounds like a formula for predictability and boredom, Kingsley and Clarkson fill the movie with enough convincing life to make Learning to Drive palatable and entertaining.

The reason Wendy wants to learn to drive -- aside any metaphoric value -- involves her daughter (Grace Gummer). Gummer's Tasha and her boyfriend live on a food commune in Vermont. Wendy reluctantly decides that it's time she paid a visit.

As the movie evolves, we can't help wondering whether Wendy and Darwan will become romantically involved, but the script by Sara Kernochan is a bit cagier than that.

About mid-way through the movie, Darwan begins a new chapter in his own life with the arrival from India of his soon-to-be wife (Sarita Choudhury), a woman sent to him for a marriage arranged by his sister.

The difficult adjustment required of both parties could (and perhaps should) have made a movie of its own. Coixet handles this awkward relationship with sensitivity and a sense of realism.

Coixet does an equally good job of sketching the life of an immigrant who has landed in Queens. Economic pressures force Darwan to share an apartment with roommates, some of whom fear discovery by immigration authorities.

As a man of character and principles, Kingsley's Darwan tries to bridge the gap between cultures: one represented by the Sikh religion, which governs his behavior, and the other, by Wendy, who offers increased intellectual stimulation.

For the most part, Wendy is a wreck, an older woman forced to abandon her old life. Divorce forces Wendy to give up the brownstone to which she's extremely attached, move into a new apartment and otherwise accept the notion that she's now traveling without a co-pilot.

Learning to Drive is not a volatile movie or one that requires pressing into anyone's book of memories: all the more reason that Kingsley and Clarkson deserve credit for getting more out of it than a formulaic premise would seem to promise.

No comments: