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Film review: Learning to Drive – Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley form a cross-cultural bond

Gentle and charming character study that touches briefly on many subjects

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 4:00pm

It is life-affirming in a thoroughly predictable way. But Catalan director Isabel Coixet’s (Elegy) adaptation of feminist author Katha Pollitt’s  autobiographical story, published under the same title in The New Yorker in 2002, still turns out to be a mildly pleasant ride thanks to its amiable leading duo, a gently observant script and some witty little commentaries on America’s cultural diversity.

Manhattan book critic Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) finds her life in turmoil when her husband of 21 years (Jake Weber) suddenly moves out for another woman. Looking to find a way to visit her daughter (Grace Gummer) in faraway Vermont, Wendy begins to take driving lessons from Darwan (Ben Kingsley), the Sikh instructor who happens to be driving her cab the moment her marriage implodes.

As she recovers her calm under Darwan’s thoughtful guidance, Wendy catches glimpses of the harsh everyday situations her new friend lives through. Once a university professor who went to jail on religious grounds, Darwan is now a political refugee living in a Queens basement with other immigrants. And he’s about to marry a woman (Sarita Choudhury) whom he’s never met, who was chosen by his family.

A slight but charming character study, Learning to Drive touches on a range of subjects – from the anti-Arab sentiment in New York to the contrasting views of marriage in different cultures – without lingering long enough on any. While the near-romance never goes far, Clarkson and Kingsley’s delicate portrayals are just enough to lift this dramedy out of its potentially schematic terrain.

Learning to Drive opens on November 12