Intimate, dramatic and sometimes comedic, “Learning to Drive” brings two people from different worlds together in the same big city. Although the script endeavors to establish the film’s disparate principal characters and tell their back stories, the film, even at a relatively brief 90 minutes, still feels underweight.
Wendy, a Manhattan book critic, enlists Indian immigrant Darwan as her driving instructor. Previously, if New York’s public transportation system didn’t get Wendy where she was going, her husband drove. But now, he’s left her, and their daughter lives driving-distance away in Vermont.
New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy, a woman whose life turns upside down when her husband of 21 years tells her he’s having an affair. Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, whose performance as Indian revolutionary Mohandas Gandhi in the 1982 biopic “Gandhi” earned an Oscar, plays Wendy’s Indian-Sikh driving instructor.
In the course of driving lessons, Darwan reveals the persecution he and other practitioners of the Sikh religion experienced in their homeland. A refugee granted asylum in the U.S., he’s now a citizen.
Queens resident Darwan holds onto his Sikh ways. He insists on wearing the beard and turban that lead many in the city to misidentify him as Muslim. Darwan’s calm reaction to harassment amazes Wendy. She doesn’t hesitate to express opinions, objections and anger. Wendy will not, for instance, go quietly into divorce. Clarkson has all the fire needed to unleash Wendy’s rage.
Initially, Wendy and Darwan would seem opposites. But the cool-headed driving instructor’s troubled new driving student tests his serenity. Likewise, his family’s wish that he follow the Indian tradition of arranged marriage. They want him to wed an Indian woman he’s never met (Sarita Choudhury).
Kingsley and Clarkson make a genuine connection between their characters. A friendship grows, conducted under the unavoidably intimate circumstance of the two of them sharing the front seat of a car.
But “Learning to Drive,” despite being fleshed out by screenwriter Sarah Kernochan from a Katha Pollitt essay that appeared in The New Yorker, still feels undercooked. Kingsley’s emphasis on Darwan’s stoicism is another shortcoming. His under-performance suggests what might have been.
The fun and liveliness with which the late Peter Sellers lit his Indian film characters, or the thoughtful and slyly comedic talent of contemporary Indian actor Irrfan Khan (“The Lunchbox,” “Jurassic World”) would have made Darwan a better match for Clarkson’s vivid Wendy.