Learning to Drive – Review

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Isabel Coixet’s preceding film, and Berlinale opener, Nobody Wants the Night, marks quite the contrast with her latest Learning to Drive; tonally incomparable, and yet bound together by having a strong, independent female protagonist. That very fact, however, is yet again a saving grace of sorts, making up for an underwhelming production, failing to move nor compel the viewer quite as much as it should.

The role of the Manhattan writer Wendy is brought to life in empathetic fashion by the tremendously talented Patricia Clarkson. Having recently been through a rather messy divorce, she is confident of getting back on her feet, and her new lease of life begins with driving lessons, as she seeks in accomplishing something new – and this is where she meets the composed, seemingly impenetrable driving instructor, Darwan (Ben Kingsley). However the Sikh is suffering from relationship troubles of his own, and the pair strike up an affinity, while the former vies to take hold of the wheel (geddit?) once and for all.

Clarkson delivers a fine leading display, which is completely imperative in helping the audience form an emotional connection with the role of Wendy, which is the bare minimum in ensuring this film passes the test. It’s also encouraging to know that roles are being written of this nature, not afraid to portray the romantic heartaches belonging to a middle-aged woman. Loss, love and everything in-between are feelings exclusively belonging to young people, after all. Coixet just about manages to juggle the myriad of themes on display, with two nuanced creations, each with their own set of hardships to overcome, as we delve into topics surrounding race and religion, deftly executed with a minimum contrivance.

However, any such sense of subtlety ends abruptly there, for the title of this film is a horribly palpable, and overt metaphor for Wendy getting her life back together, with the notion of driving (and achieving something new) emblematic of her own personal journey through this tumultuous time. Nonetheless, this film is not exactly trying to be anything it’s not, and for all of the shortcomings, ultimately we’re left with an undemanding, light picture that merrily coasts along, albeit never quite changing gear.

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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