Learning to Drive (2014)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Isabel Coixet
Run Time
1 hour and 29 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Star Rating
★★★★4 out of 5

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 29 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 0; Language 2; Sex 8/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit. Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.

Ecclesiastes 7:7-9

Veteran actors Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley give sterling performances in director Isabel Coixet’s story of two very different Manhattanites brought together by a taxi ride. Their slight but memorable story is adapted by Sarah Kernochan from an essay in The New Yorker by Katha Pollitt. Wendy (Clarkson) is upset by the news that her husband of 21 years Ted (Jake Weber) intends to divorce her so he can marry a younger woman—one of his students, she supposes. Their bickering continues during a cab ride, ending when Ted leaves her sobbing, and the Sikh driver Darwan (a turbaned Kingsley) wordlessly taking her home. Discovering that she has left in the back seat a large envelope full of papers addressed to her, he stops off at her townhouse the next day to return them.

In the meantime Wendy has been discussing Ted’s departure with her grown daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer), in town from Vermont where she is enjoying life as a member of a farm commune. Wendy is convinced that Ted will return, as he did twice before at seven year intervals. Tasha disabuses her of this by revealing that she has been in touch with Ted and that he has already filed papers for a divorce. Thus when Darwin appears on her doorstep, the shocked woman at first receives the packet, offering to pay him for his trouble. He refuses, turning away to get back into his cab. When she sees the sign on top about driving lessons, she rushes to him to ask about becoming a student. With Ted having served as driver for the 21 years of their marriage, she had never felt the need to learn, until now. Thus begins the sequence of the two slowly learning a bit more about each other, until…

I love the little ways in which the filmmakers immerse us in the culture of an American Sikh, from Darwan’s dealing with his long hair and turban at the beginning and end of a day, to the brief scene of worship in the Sikh temple, to the cramming together into his small basement apartment of several fellow countrymen—here we soon learn illegally when Immigration agents stage a raid. When Darwan pulls out on demand his papers that show he came to the country in late 2000, the agent, with a touch of scorn in his voice, says that he got in just in time. The Indian-American endures other insults from bigots who, because of his turban, mistake him for an Arab. Darwan tells Wendy that he was a college professor back in India, was arrested during a period when Sikhs were persecuted, and spent time as a political prisoner. Hence his emigrating to America where the only work he could find is driving a taxi by night and giving driving lessons during the day.

Just when we think his relationship with Wendy will blossom into romance—it is evident that the two have become attracted to each other—he reveals that his sister back in India has arranged for him to marry a woman from a neighboring village whom he has never met.

When Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) arrives, she turns out to be very shy, speaking just a few words of English. Disappointed in her, Darwan nevertheless goes through with wedding (the film showing well the colorful spectacle of the ceremony), but they do not “live happily everafter.” Jasleen stays isolated at home, not even desiring to venture out to buy groceries because of her discomfort with the language and the strange environment. This time Darwan fails to exercise his usual patience, criticising her cooking, and urging her to get out more.

Thus that old question “Can this marriage be saved?” arises, along with the possibility of his linking up after all with Wendy. The conclusion of the film is a very satisfactory one in which we see how both principals have affected each other for the best. Wendy uses the term “faith” to describe how Darwan has renewed her spirit, once so tender and timid that she feared driving onto a bridge. Her getting into her car and setting off to visit Tasha is an inspirig sequence. Viewers are left with a warm glow by developments that people can change for the better, even across a cultural gulf.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of VP.


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