I expected little from Isabel Coixet’s Learning to Drive. Even though I had liked her previous collaboration with Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, Elegy, this looked unappealing and obvious — just another old-sploitation comedy, this week’s A Walk in the Woods. Well, it isn’t that at all, and the film is being mismarketed as a kind of romantic-comedy. Oh, it’s romantic — without being quite a romance — and it has a smattering of gentle laughs, but it is not so much a comedy as it is a drama. It’s small in scale and largely unassuming, both of which may be in the movie’s favor, since it never tries too hard. The film — rather like the character that Kingsley plays — seems content to just “be.”
Clarkson plays Wendy Shields, a high-powered New York literary critic, whose life is sent into a tailspin when her husband Ted (Jake Weber) dumps her for another woman — something he decides to tell her in public in the hopeless belief that it will prevent her making a scene. In one of the film’s few concessions to Hollywoodiana this provides an awkward meet-cute for her and Darwan Singh Tur (Kingsley) when she jumps into Darwan’s taxi after her husband. Soon Ted bails from the cab and instructs Darwan — who by now has heard the gist of the situation — to take her home. As luck would have it, she leaves an envelope in the cab, prompting Darwan to return it to her on his day job (a driving instructor). Right about this time, circumstances — mainly Wendy’s daughter (Grace Gummer) urging her mother to visit her at school in Vermont — make it advisable for Wendy to learn how to drive. It’s easy to see where this going, and it would be understandable at this point if you’re ready to head for the exit because of the obvious contrivances on display. But don’t. This is merely the set-up for the core of the movie about two lonely — but very different — people dealing with drastic changes in their lives.
Wendy is not the only one facing change. Darwan — whose status in the U.S. as a political refugee prevents him from returning to India — has given in to the urgings of his sister to enter into an arranged marriage with a woman, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), whom he has never met or even spoken with. He tries to take this in stride and accept it — and while he mostly succeeds, there’s a deep undercurrent of sadness and disappointment underneath it all. And thank goodness for this, because it keeps Darwan from being some kind of magical Sikh who solves all of Wendy’s problems with his sage advice and the not-too-stressed metaphor of driving as life. Instead it becomes a charming story of two unlikely people becoming friends — friends who can tell each other things they can tell no one else, something that is perhaps even more intimate than a literal romance.
This is a film of great charm and a kind of gentleness we don’t often see in movies. It touches on many things with a hand that’s as light as the set-up is contrived. Ultimately, Learning to Drive is a film about self-discovery through human connection. It is sweet, but balanced by moments of biting wit to keep it from becoming cloying. It has moments of great delicacy that may well stay with you long after showier, grander movies have vanished from your mind. Oh, this isn’t a great film by any means. I don’t even think that was ever the idea. It is what it was meant to be — a small, emotionally resonant, honest tale told with subtle artistry and almost no artifice. Rated R for language and sexual content.