It seems that no one taught director Isabel Coixet and writer Sarah Kernochan to drive any further than the middle of the road, as their collaboration, Learning to Drive, is exactly that. It’s inoffensively pleasant stuff, but a little forgettable despite the formidable casting of Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley.
Freshly divorced Wendy (Clarkson) decides that she finally wants to pass her driving test so she can visit her daughter (Grace Gummer) in Vermont. Still fragile from her split, she gains support from Sikh driving instructor Darwan (Kingsley) who has relationship troubles of his own, the result of his arranged marriage.
The selling point of Learning to Drive is undoubtedly the pairing of the ever excellent Clarkson and Kingsley both of whom inject their unique spark into Coixet’s film. Kingsley brings a contemplative slow-paced charm to the fold as the patient, gentlemanly Darwan. In one of the more interesting narrative tangents, this demeanour is shattered due to the impending stress of his arranged marriage which he has presumably put off for a number of years given his age. Clarkson brings an amusing neuroticism and wry humour to the picture, with this combination working well alongside the straight-laced Darwan to create a fun dynamic.
There are some attempts to capture concerns a little harder hitting than Wendy passing her driving test, albeit these can often feel half baked. Kernochan’s screenplay tackles racism faced by non-white Americans (seen in a dramatic house raid sequence), whilst it also delves into the struggles of arranged marriages in the Sikh community. Although tackling serious issues, Learning to Drive struggles to find an engagement in these areas that matches the spark between the scenes focussed on Kingsley and Clarkson.
There are some sketchy moments of characterisation in Kernochan’s screenplay. Clarkson’s Wendy is initially unappealing as a character – she’s presented as clawing, desperate and unflatteringly needy as a result of her divorce. It’s clear that Kernochan’s attempts are to show how broken Wendy is after the revelation of her husband’s affair and to capture her building confidence as the narrative progresses, but it feels somewhat clumsily done – especially in scenes where Wendy slips into an old dress and treats her ex to a desperation-filled lap dance. Clarkson does get the chance to show some dramatic range as well as her well established comedic chops, so it is not entirely a bad thing.
Learning to Drive is stylistically unremarkable, which is to be expected for a middle of the road comedy-drama – with most of the scenes taking place in car or home interiors. Coixet’s film is truly inoffensive fare and should be given plaudits for the issues it touches on, as well as the pairing of Clarkson and Kingsley. You might find yourself forgetting this one by the next day, however.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival Director: Isabel Coixet Cast: Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer, Patricia Clarkson