Learning to Drive
When Ben “Gandhi” Kingsley first appears on screen, in a boot-polished face and bright blue turban, alarm bells clang. Will this be merely a slice of casual racism, transported to New York City, where Kingsley’s poor, honest Indian driving instructor changes the life of a rich, white, American divorcée?
As it turns out, thankfully, no. Despite the vapid title and lightweight, potentially predictable set-up, Learning to Drive does slightly more than it says on the poster. And this is in every way down to the committed performances from Sir Ben and the wonderful Patricia Clarkson (who has been omnipresent on our screens since 1985, yet remains deprived of that one, distinguishing “Oh yes, her” role).
From the minute Wendy and her ratbag husband bundle into Darwan’s cab, hurling wounded expletives that call their marriage to an end, the story hurtles towards transformation for both leads. Wendy must learn to drive, signalling her emancipation from unsuccessful wifedom after her husband scratches “his third seven-year itch”, while Darwan works tirelessly to provide for family back home and an Americanised nephew in NYC, at the expense of his own personal happiness.
Perhaps thanks to the female-heavy crew (written, directed, produced by women, with Scorsese’s long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, as the professional cherry on top), Learning to Drive eschews many of the excruciating clichés of an odd-couple drama, prioritising snappy, credible dialogue (at once awkward and real) with engaging character development to make it actually rather charming.