Isabel Coixet’s Learning to Drive begins with one of the most embarrassing and painful types of break-ups a person might have to live through in this crowded city of New York: in the cramped back seat of a taxi, with the silent driver bearing witness from the other side of the partition.
This is how we first meet Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), the successful book critic and her errant and soon-to-absent husband of 21 years, Ted (Jake Weber), and the Sikh man Wendy will come to know very well, Darwan (Sir Ben Kingsley) who is a driving instructor as well as a taxi driver.
Wendy is unbelieving at first, brushing off Ted’s declarations that he wants out, but as they grow stronger to the point where he hops out and abandons her in the cab, she soon sinks into a teary mess in the back seat, saying over and over “I just don’t understand” while Darwan drives her home, to the Upper West Side. He remains silent throughout the ride but clearly concerned, as he beholds the crumpled, discarded woman in the rear view mirror.
In no time, as Wendy lurches along through the various stages of grief, she has contracted Darwan to teach her how to drive, and their friendship begins. However Wendy’s confidence may grow or contract, Darwan is there, ramrod straight and calm, telling her the right way to go and how to get there.
The idea for Learning to Drive grew out of a New Yorker piece Katha Pollitt wrote following her own break-up, though in the original story, her instructor was from the Philippines. When it came to Sarah Kernochan to develop a script, she wanted to add an element to the relationship between the two people that would be visually striking and further emphasize how (seemingly) wide the gap is between them, and so the Filipino became a Sardar.
But Wendy and Darwan turn out to be kindred souls, both love words and a life of the mind, even if Darwan has had to leave intellectual pursuits behind – we learn he was a professor at university – when he arrives in the U.S. as an asylum seeker and needs to make money.
Over the course of Wendy’s driving lessons, as she gradually accepts that a divorce is inevitable, both her and Darwan’s stories seep out, and these two people – separated by sex, nationality, religion – become friends.
During their weeks together, while Darwan demonstrates unruffled aplomb, even in the face of racist taunts (“Hey Osama, I thought we killed you already!”), Wendy serves as a confidant and sounding board on what women want and like, as Darwan decides to accept a match his sister has found for him and he anticipates her arrival in New York. The bride, Jasleen (played by Sarita Choudhury), arrives at JFK clutching her red lehenga in a garment bag and looking quite scared.
All three of these people are taking a leap into the unknown: Wendy as a newly single woman rebuilding her life, Dawan as a self-sufficient, older man, with his own way of doing things and Jasleen, a mature Punjabi woman who never married, flying several continents over to commit to life with a stranger.
For anyone who’s endured and made it through to the other side of A Really Bad Break-up, you will recognize yourself in Patricia Clarkson’s Wendy. One minute she’s putting a positive face on the new future and getting out there to do new things, and another she’s daydreaming imagined run-ins on the street with her former husband and his new younger girlfriend, and feeling like she can’t even drive herself home. Patricia Clarkson has always made it look so easy to be so vulnerable and seemingly real on screen (think The Station Agent), and she again succeeds here. You don’t doubt for a minute that she is that intellectual New Yorker living amongst her curving bookshelves off West End Avenue, arguing with her almost-ex- over who gets custody of a Moroccan lamp.
For me, Sir Ben’s Darwan was flawless (I’m waiting to see Sikh film-goers reactions) – taut and dignified bearing, strong yet capable of great gentleness. If you didn’t already know someone like him, his portrayal makes you want to. And you love him even more in the scene where he goes to meet Jasleen -for the first time ever – at the airport, after a rainy mishap on the road leaves him with his turban wet and misshapen, a far cry from the (literally) tightly wound man he usually is, and you cringe for him, as he approaches her, knowing that he’s mortified to make this sort of an impression.
Sarita Choudhury is perfect as Jasleen, and in handling the challenges that role presents. One aspect of the way her relationship with Darwan is portrayed is the only part of the film I found problematic. As soon as Jasleen arrives, Darwan tells her “You’re in America now, we must speak only English” which has the effect of rendering her almost completely mute, when she’s not speaking a weird sort of English.
In their scenes together, I kept wishing the newlyweds would switch over to Punjabi and we, the audience, would read a few lines of subtitles to follow along. No problem. Except there is a problem – neither of the actors speak Punjabi, so then the challenge for Coixet would have been to have them so thoroughly and properly coached that they could deliver the lines convincingly in Punjabi, or risk them being ridiculed for their shortcomings there. If that wasn’t feasible, then I just wish the stunted English dialogue Jasleen’s given could have been better rendered. At times it felt like too much while also feeling unrealistic.
But the upside of this one problematic element is that it forces Sarita Choudhury to convey her thoughts and emotions in other ways, and that’s a gift to us. She uses those eyes to express so much and in the spans of only a few seconds. Fear, anger, frustration, uncertainty – it’s all there.
Sarah Kernochan’s writing provides a lot of humor and some great lines. Watch and see the reactions in your screening to the Ambien line, and the “job” line. My particular favorite, after Wendy gets cut off by some guy in a sports car, is this one:
There are also some touching moments, when nothing is said. In the short wedding scene at the gurudwara, seeing the solemnity on the faces of these two people who are not young malleable kids in their twenties, plunging ahead and committing to each other, and still done out in their wedding finery, with no warning I felt tears welling up. And I don’t normally cry at movie weddings!
It was refreshing to see a movie about people who aren’t engaged in intergalactic battles but instead have to do really scary things, like figure out how to set their seemingly unremarkable lives back on track and make their way forward.
And lovely to see a New York story filmed in the real New York, the city we live in every day, with nary a shot of Times Square, Central Park or the Statue of Liberty anywhere.
Learning to Drive opens today in Los Angeles and New York.