Learning To Drive, not to be confused with the Corey Haim/Corey Feldman vehicle License To Drive, comes from an autobiographical 2002 New Yorker article by essayist Katha Pollitt. In the magazine piece, later published in a Pollitt collection of stories, a longtime non-driving Manhattan resident bounces back from a breakup with a womanizing jerk (I’m taking her point of view) by grabbing the wheel of her own life, through driving lessons. At one point Pollitt imagines using her newfound skills to commit vehicular homicide on her ex.
Nothing quite so fanciful occurs in the movie, which is decorous and civilized in the extreme. It’s extremely well-acted by Patricia Clarkson, as a Manhattan book critic, and Ben Kingsley, as her fastidious Sikh driving instructor. Clarkson’s Wendy is navigating an unwanted divorce, and has a daughter (Mamie Gummer) working on a Vermont commune she’d like to see more. Hence the lessons with her instructor, Darwan (Kingsley), who meanwhile is negotiating a difficult new life in an arranged marriage to a woman (Sarita Choudhury, of Mississippi Masala) from India.
Student and teacher become friends, with the tantalizing promise of something more. The adaptation by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (a co-writer on 9 1/2 Weeks, to name another film not to be confused with this one) has been directed with supreme tact by Isabel Coixet. Her earlier works include Elegy, also featuring Kingsley and Clarkson. That film, based on a Philip Roth story, was as male-centric as this one is female.
I wish Learning To Drive imagined a fuller, more dimensional inner life for Wendy, but Clarkson develops a push-pull rapport with co-star Kinglsey that fills in the blanks — or, rather, mitigates the script’s on-the-nose tendencies. They’re both highly concentrated performers, with speaking voices (his like an oboe, hers like a different oboe) that convey a worldiness and mysterious wisdom, often in a single word.
The movie isn’t much, but the drivers pass with flying colors.
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Learning to Drive
Director: Isabel Coixet
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley
Rated: R (strong language, sexual content)
Running time: 90 min.