Learning to Drive Review - An Adventure Worth Taking

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Learning to Drive, from Broad Green Pictures, presents a contemporary coming of age drama, of modernity and tradition, of culture, guiding principles, the marriage of ying and yang and the desire to fully embrace change.

Starring Patricia Clarkson, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury and Grace Gummer, Learning to Drive was directed by Isabel Coixet and written by Sarah Kernochan.

Learning to Drive, begins with Darwan, played brilliantly by Sir Ben Kingsley, instructing students to drive, gently explaining, the method, complete immersion, hands on the wheel, no fear, explaining with the watchfulness of a seasoned instructor he nurses sixteen-year-old's, the next wave of road warriors, with care and dedication.

Typical of most New Yorkers, Darwan has a second life, this one behind the wheel of a New York taxi. A cab driver cruising the mean streets looking for fares which is where our story begins.

Wendy, portrayed with precision, by Patricia Clarkson, an accomplished, driven, intelligent and highly revered book critic, which we meet at, of course, the most awkward, lonely and depressing time of her well planned adult life as her husband, Ted, played by Jake Weber, has told her he intends to leave her.

The two stumble out of the restaurant, screaming, he jumps into the nearest taxi, hoping to escape. Shestops the driver from leaving, and the two, once the envy of friends and colleagues, share a final angry, hurtful, ride to the brownstone, the home they built, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The once lovers end their life together with a ride punctuated with screams and insults, an oddly long incubation period, births life anew. 

The next scenes, drunken induced hallucinations of the old life, the memories, crash at full speed into the brick wall of reality and Wendy is up vomiting. The night was real, he did leave.

Suddenly it is daytime again and a knock on the door reminds her of life on the outside which is where we met Tasha, played by Grace Gummer, who lightly questions her mother on the separation while explaining how she is working on an organic farm in Vermont, with a land man, from Dartmouth, and the investment into the ivy league education, well . . . The two have a decade old discussion of why she never learned to drive and she can’t come to visit because she can’t drive. To which, Wendy definitively states “I’ll learn to drive.”

Darwan, our cab driver, discovered in the back of his taxi a package addressed to Wendy. Darwan is a man of deep religious, devout faith. Although not stated he seems to have a belief in karma, and with that heads up to the Upper West Side, package in hand, he knocks on the door, returning the manuscript.

Suddenly, as if the universe collided and destiny, kismet, happenstance or whatever you attribute fate beckons and she sees the ‘Learn to Drive' sign on his car. Propelled forward she, suddenly empowered, free, determined, makes the appointment.

This is where Learning to Drive shifts into high gear and builds as the two, Darwan and Wendy, are alone in a very confined space, not only learning to drive but learning about each other and the customs and principals that guide their lives.

Having the opportunity to speak with both Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson at the Los Angeles Media Day and hearing each of them describe the roles and how they interpreted the relationship was very interesting and left me wondering.

Speaking with Mr. Kingsley the issue of defined class lines as his character, as well spoken, caring and educated as he was and a naturalized American citizen, his character maintained the customs of his natural culture, instead of adopting a westernized lifestyle.

He was a transplanted Punjabi living in Queens, New York. He may have changed location but didn’t change lifestyles or cultures. When asked about this, Mr. Kingsley, explains the characters “wisely” make a choice opposite of what the audience may think they see on the horizon.

To me, I found, even as charming as Mr. Kinsley portrayed Darwan, the cultural distance between the two seemed a chasm impossible to cross and she, Wendy, intertwined in the final moments of her character she seems to understand the wonderful person, whom she met at a moment in deep distress became a savior so to speak, someone that gave her freedom, a guide through a severe season of upheaval and became fondly remembered as a seasonal friend.

Ms. Clarkson, described it as “the ying and yang.” The understanding of balance and the two balance.

Learning to Drive, a centric New York story of empowerment, invokes memories of those learning to drive days or for some the first time navigating the streets of Manhattan with the cacophony of city life challenging.

Learning to Drive is charming, unusual, passionate, and illuminating. The cast is delightful. Sarita Choudhury portrays her role perfectly. Grace Gummer, in her single scene, shines. Kingsley and Clarkson paired again are wonderful, each fully committed, immersed and engaged.

Learning to Drive opens August 21, 2015. 

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