Pious Petunia is a Ben Kingsley fan. She has followed throughout his career, loving his performances since early theatre, telling dips into TV (oh yes, Corrie and the great Crown Court), and on to some films he made. Okay, Gandhi. So, imagine her joy one cold Sunday night when old Jack found Learning to Drive.
Kingsley is taxi driver by night, a driving instructor by day, in bustling and modern New York. And he’s a refugee from issues with being a Sikh back home. One night, into his taxi comes a rowing couple at the point of it’s-divorce-she’s-one of-your-students-you-total-shit. Patricia Clarkson is wealthy critic-writer-cuckoldess Wendy, the lead of the film, and needs to go on a metaphorical journey of recovery. So takes driving lessons with Kinglsey’s impressively calm Darwan.
The plot line is expected albeit significantly perked up by the business of Wendy’s disintegrating life, odd relationship with her empty nest and its occasional returning inhabitants (Grace Gummer‘s Tasha, the daughter, is too much of an on-the-nose commentator for my liking; Jake Weber brings soon-to-be-ex Ted in just under the selfish tit wire), and growing safe-space with Darwan.
Nothing much happens. Wendy and Darwan become slow friends, opening up to the better side of life. Darwan takes a bride, Sarita Choudhury pushed to the edge of believability as the timid Jasleen, and needs Wendy’s advice on bringing her out of herself and how to stop being grumpy-scary. Wendy builds in confidence as Darwan gets her moving: crossing bridges, and dealing with the awful emotions of her divorce. There’s a sweet parallel when Jasleen goes shopping… But! The film achieves all this with a lovely sense of humour, a smattering of unexpected belly-laughs (Wendy takes a tantric lover in a scene that’s funny and – weirdly – a crowd-pleaser), and a welcome balance of a woman in her fifties and a platonic male friend in his seventies. Not your usual.
And perhaps that’s why I was able to block out Pious Petunia’s cooing noises. Learning to Drive, for all the simplicity of its plot and standard issue poppycock of its character journeys, feels fresh and modern. It is led by a frank woman who deals with her issues, grows and gets on with life (and – refreshingly – she’s not completely blameless for the divorce); she is supported by a complex man with family and marriage issues, indeed a man needing a gentle nudge; and the whole thing resolves without surprises but a ton of nice shots of brown-stone buildings and dignity rebuilt. While being funny.
Wait ’til springtime, grab yourself a Pimm’s, and take on Learning to Drive. It won’t make the hills shake, but it is a deft character piece set to make you feel fond for the leads and hopeful for their futures.
Pimm’s No. 1, a cupcake and two hours on Netflix. This one’s a charmer.