Everyone who can drive remembers learning. The initial nerves, the feeling of power when you first hit the roads…but the thing that sticks with people most is their instructor. It seems there is no middle ground with your instructor – you either had a brilliant one who became a friend, or a shit one who became an enemy. I’d be in the latter camp…bloody Stephen. Anyway, it’s surprising that this big coming-of-age experience has been so ignored in film narrative – sure it’s sometimes used as a little subplot, but rarely as a film’s core. The aptly named Learning to Drive is probably the most accurate portrayal of this part of life, but its meaning goes far beyond the title.
Learning to Drive follows an unlikely friendship that grows between two very different New Yorkers each day in a car; Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is a sharp-tongued literary critic whose husband (Jake Weber) just left her, inspiring her to embrace her independence and finally learn how to drive, while her teacher Darwan (Ben Kingsley) is a gentle Indian Sikh driving instructor with an impending arranged marriage troubling him. As Darwan teaches Wendy how to drive, they both learn valuable lessons about relationships, life, and the value of friendship – and maybe Wendy teaches Darwan a few things in return. Yes, I know, it sounds like another cheesy odd couple film that you’ve seen a million times before. But Learning to Drive is slightly deeper than it appears.
At its core, Learning to Drive is not a film about learning to drive a car, but learning to drive one’s own life. Deep, I know. Both of the lost souls in the film have forgotten how to lead their own lives – Wendy’s life with a controlling husband has left her dependent, while Darwan’s religion has his life set out for him. The learning to drive behind the wheel is a powerful metaphor for life. The roads are in front of us metaphorically, and all that. Road knowledge (“you can't always trust people to behave properly”, for example) can be applied to life and, as Wendy says in the film, ain’t that the truth. However, some of this symbolism can be a little heavy-handed, which does diminish the effect ever-so-slightly.
Films like this can ultimately be measured by the strength of their performances alone, and Learning to Drive brings us two of the finest talents in cinema – so they’re both going to be good, surely? Absolutely. Clarkson is superb in the somewhat feminist role of Wendy, but it is Kingsley who steals the show as the softly spoken Darwan who must face racial injustice and arguably suffer for his religion. It’s a complex and layered performance, something Kingsley can always pull off with great panache. And that’s it, really. The supporting cast are all adequate but fail to leave a lasting impression – besides perhaps Weber who is always good at playing arseholes.
But despite all this, Learning to Drive doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression, nor is it hugely original. I guess that isn’t a huge criticism – not every film is made to be remembered and revisited – but it does make a film slightly harder to recommend. If this review makes the film sound familiar in any way, it’s probably because you’ve seen it before…a hundred times. It’s nothing too special, but if you do decide to give it a test drive (wahey) you’ll enjoy the ride (I’m unstoppable). Just don’t expect anything that’ll change your life or stick with you. The credits will roll, you’ll switch it off and move on with your life. You won’t find yourself studying it and discussing it, but hey, sometimes we just need an easy watch.
Learning to Drive isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s a nice and gentle little film. 3/5
Learning to Drive at CeX
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