By Jude Warne.
“The ferryman takes you from one bank of the river in his little craft, his boat, to the other bank of the river,” says Sir Ben Kingsley on this variety of the taxi-passenger experience. “You get off his boat and feel that your molecules have somehow been rearranged. You’ve learned something, something’s happened, there’s been a transition, though you might not be quite sure what it is.”
Driving a car, while a learned skill, which like other learned skills incorporates basic knowledge improved upon by experience, is largely an improvisational pursuit. A driver doesn’t ever really know what will happen next on the road. A driver can’t really trust other drivers completely, or worse, pedestrians, many of whom do unpredictable things. These aforementioned qualities are not unique to driving a car, however. Living, while an acquired skill that like other acquired skills incorporates basic knowledge improved upon by experience, is largely an improvisational pursuit. A person doesn’t ever really know what will happen next on the road of life. A person can’t really trust other people completely, many of whom do unpredictable things. This to-drive-well-is-to-live-well analogy is the crux of Isabel Coixet’s new film Learning to Drive, which stars Patricia Clarkson as Wendy, a successful New York book reviewer who has recently been left by her longtime husband Ted (Jake Weber), and Sir Ben Kingsley as Darwan, her Sikh driving instructor-taxi driver. The film implements a Sarah Kernochan screenplay, loosely based on an insightful 22 July 2002 article by Katha Pollitt originally published in The New Yorker. Left to anyone else, left to artists with less talent or intelligence, the undertaking of such a narrative concept would result in forced and colorless tripe. Lucky for us, it was not.
“This is a woman who had it all,” says Clarkson on her character Wendy. “She’s often the smartest woman in the room, she’s a book critic. If you’re a book critic for something as prestigious as The New Yorker you’ve hit the high water mark, you have it all, you’ve got a beautiful husband, a beautiful daughter – and you forgot to take it in… it’s about her looking within herself and realizing that everything she really needed was inside. She just never really looked up.” There is something safe in preferring words, literature, and writing, to action and interaction with others, in which one’s hands sooner or later get dirty. Wendy, a successful literary critic, comes to realize this when Ted leaves her for another woman, blindsiding her completely. This forces her to improvise, finding herself in a situation that she never thought she would find herself in – on her own. When driving a car, when learning to drive a car as Wendy decides to do, it becomes very clear that we don’t know what will happen next out in the street, and that we have to pay constant to the evolution and shifting, however loud or subtle, that occurs. This is also true about our life paths, but to make ourselves feel better, we pretend that we know what will happen in many situations. Case in point: Wendy’s marriage to Ted; nothing in life is guaranteed. As a foil for that marriage, driving instructor Darwan begins his arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury). This plotline soon draws our attention to the false implications of the term “arranged marriage” – it’s not arranged through to completion of course, Darwan and Jasleen actually have to do it, to build the relationship, which takes time and effort and consistent development of trust and acceptance, and which isn’t always comfortable.
There is humility to be found in admitting that we do not know everything, that we still get blindsided, no matter how old or learned we might be. This admittance seems to gain resistance as we grow older and more confident, often rightfully so, in our ways. Both Wendy and Darwan achieve this humility over the course of Learning to Drive. While Darwan is teaching Wendy, a longtime New Yorker, how to drive a car, he is also teaching her how to navigate through life by sharing bits of acquired wisdom and also by example. One of the most terrible things imaginable happens to Wendy when her husband leaves her; it seems as though her world has ended for a time. As she develops a friendship with Darwan and learns more about him, she soon realizes that her biggest problem is near miniscule in comparison with his, and thus she is better able to put into perspective what has happened to her.
Darwan left his home country of India where he was a university professor to seek political asylum. Kingsley explains how his character Darwan “feels that everyone in his company has to learn something. It’s not pompous, it’s just what he does, and what his dad did. They were professors who had followings of students, and he imparts what he can to those with him, those around him.” In post-9/11 New York, Darwan faces racist abuse, as we see during the aftermath of a minor mid-driving-lesson car accident instigated by Wendy. The other driver involved disrespects Darwan by pulling off his turban and calling him “Osama.” Wendy is outraged, but Darwan faces the situation with extreme dignity and composure, refusing to engage in violence with the racist. Kingsley’s portrayal of Darwan is quite something to see, as he seems to have become his character in flesh, blood and bone in preparation: “In make-up I closed my eyes, got made up in complete silence, and then at the end of my process, when I’m very, very still, I open my eyes and say ‘There he is,’ and go onto the set. But those minutes in that make-up area are crucial to me. And then in addition to that, to feel the tightness (of the turban) on my head was really gratifying. As Sikhs are warriors of a kind, I felt I was putting on my armor, which was a glorious feeling.”
Artists with less talent or intelligence might have been tempted to write more literal romance into the teacher-student relationship of Wendy and Darwan; after all, the two actors are so charming that they could convincingly pull it off. Lucky for us, however, the screenplay restricts it to mildly flirtatious at most, and what is most romantic lies in what is not said. Director Coixet agrees: “I like the idea that nothing overtly romantic happened between them. For me the romantic aspect is nothing happens. I love Henry James novels and for me, all the things left unsaid, that are floating between people, are romantic.” This approach, too, beckons us to reflect upon the value of our platonic relationships, and how we can learn about our romantic relationships through them. Several times in Learning to Drive, Wendy is able to help Darwan better communicate with his new stranger of a wife Jasleen, at one point even inspiring him to buy her a book of poetry. This particular plan fails, but the attempt is a step in the right direction.
The film centers on a female protagonist and its method of storytelling is colored with an extra shade of truth via its female story writer, screenwriter, and director. Kingsley, having worked with Coixet (and Clarkson) in 2008’s Elegy as well, feels that this was beneficial for his character’s truth as well: “I’m sorry to say that this is special because it shouldn’t be, but a woman director – they’re too rare, we should have far more of them. And in both films – Elegy and Learning to Drive – (Coixet)… has a way of filming male vulnerability that is very much her forte. Also she operates the camera herself so that when she looks down the lens, as a director she sees what you will see in the audience, and therefore she chooses her shots very carefully.” Coixet feels that this method of shooting scenes is nearly ideal: “I think it creates an intimacy with actors that is really important to create. They know I’m there, I can see every movement they do, it’s much easier I have to say, even if my back is killing me.”
Learning to Drive coasts along at a nearly-slow speed, but all the better to soak up the performances of tried and true Clarkson and Kingsley. They bring to life character portraits with the lightest of touches; it is a pleasure to watch them on screen, and it is no surprise that the actors’ working relationship is an exceptional one, according to Kingsley: “The working relationship between us was so good that between takes, even sitting in the car so close together, we didn’t speak. Not a word – no need. To trust the other that she is in character, and she was playing a neurotic jangle and I was playing complete stillness. Had we merged those we would have lost the polarity, so we kept it in a lovely trusting silence.”
And with director Coixet, the team is in good hands, for her favorite filmmaker is Francois Truffaut: “I think I’ve seen every single Truffaut film probably twenty times.”
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.