The film “Learning to Drive,” in its title and early in the telling, telegraphs its intentions. Patricia Clarkson plays a middle aged, New York City woman who had always avoided learning how to drive. Dealing with a shattering divorce, she’s also a middle aged woman fearful and unprepared to continue driving the difficulties in her life.
Ben Kingsley plays a middle aged man who might be described as having comparatively more intractable problems. He’s working two jobs to make immigrant ends meet and he’s victimized by prejudice on a daily basis. In addition to driving a taxi, he’s also a driving instructor. Early in the film, it’s clear that it will be Kingsley’s job to teach Clarkson how to drive a car as well as her new life.
The story is decently satisfying and more than that because of the opportunity to watch two such masterful actors make this small story work. One of the fresher aspects involves a couple of romantic angles not typically drawn at the movies.
“Learning to Drive” effectively, though only mildly, registers as an issue picture. We live in a time of tensions about immigrants and especially Muslims. Kingsley’s character is a Sikh. People of the Sikh faith are frequently mischaracterized as Muslims. Sikh, Muslim … whatever … people become blameworthy by shallow association. Kingsley plays an American citizen who bears his second-class citizen status with grace and perseverance.
Ben Kingsley is too frequently pigeonholed as that guy who played Gandhi (1982). This time around, the role is hardly a Gandhi-sized challenge, but elements of internal strength, poise, and wisdom serve “Learning to Drive” well.
Patricia Clarkson is better known by other actors than by the movie going public. She does have one Oscar nomination as a supporting actress in the quirky charmer “Pieces of April” (2003). Her character’s troubled vitality enlivens the story as it revolves around the teacher’s sturdiness. As it is with good teacher roles, Kingsley’s character also learns valuable lessons. As a movie going lesson, “Learning to Drive” is appealing, if not particularly special.