Learning to Drive (4 stars)

Learning to Drive

Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley are nicely paired in this endearing drama from Isabel Coixet

A New York based film about divorce, midlife crisis and finding yourself again sounds like a noisy affair. But Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s drama rarely gets hysterical. As quiet as the engine of an electric car, it purrs along on the strength of its perfect pairing of two very fine actors: Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. In Coixet’s second film with both stars after Elegy, her 2008 take on Philip Roth’s short novel The Dying Animal, Kingsley plays Darwan, a Sikh taxi driver living in Manhattan who moonlights as a driving instructor.

Written by Sarah Kernochan (Sommersby) and originally based on a New Yorker article by Katha Pollitt, the plot sees Darwan befriend Clarkson’s literary critic Wendy, who starts the film at her lowest ebb when her husband Ted (Jake Weber) leaves her for another woman. After serving as her cabbie, Darwan offers to teach her to drive and she eventually accepts – a symbol, perhaps, of her need to stand tall in the wake of a life-shattering split.

One of the film’s more credible elements is how Coixet allows this gentle bond between these two very different people time to flourish. Darwan isn’t some sort of angelic miracle-worker; he has his own concerns – from daily racial abuse to his poor living conditions with other migrants (some of whom face probing from the authorities). Then there’s his impending arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), a woman he’s never met before.

Impressively, Coixet collaborates here with the great Thelma Schoonmaker (working alongside Keith Reamer), the triple Oscar-winning editor who almost exclusively cuts for Martin Scorsese, though in truth she can do little to take the rather slight narrative to the next level. As culture clash tales go, it’s hardly groundbreaking in its approach. But there’s no question that Clarkson and Kingsley are wonderful to watch, and their ability to show the value of friendship is truly touching. Those looking for a small, soulful film will find real satisfaction here.

General release from Fri 10 Jun.

Learning to Drive

  • 4 stars
  • 2015
  • 1h 30min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Isabel Coixet
  • Cast: Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury
  • UK release: 10 June 2016

Darwan (Kingsley) is a Sikh taxi driver in New York City who befriends literary critic Wendy (Clarkson), whose husband has just left her. Small, soulful and touching tale of mid-life friendship and finding yourself again, with both characters given complexity and vulnerability, and wonderful work from Clarkson and Kingsley.