Learning to Drive
Director: Isabel Coixet
Writer: Sarah Kernochan
Based on: the article by Katha Pollitt
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, John Hodgman, Samantha Bee, Avi Nash
Seen on: 10.8.2015
Wendy’s (Patricia Clarkson) husband Ted (Jake Weber) just left her, which came as a complete surprise to her. Wendy is slowly losing herself in despair, she barely has any social contacts and her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) works on a farm in Connecticut. But if Wendy learned how to drive, she could visit her. So when chance brings Darwan (Ben Kingsley) to her doorstep who happens to be a driving instructor, she goes for it. But it turns out that Darwan can teach her much more than just to drive.
Learning to Drive was nice, though I didn’t care for the romantic angle or for the occasional bouts of orientalism in it.
This is a story about a (rich, white) woman who loses her belief in romance, love and marriage and regains it when she meets an Indian immigrant who just consented to an arranged marriage with a woman, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), who is sent to him from India. And because Darwan has principles and swears that he would never cheat on his wife and because of the way he, as a Sikh, understands marriage in general is so beautiful and amazing, Wendy can believe again that marriage can work, even if hers failed.
And a) it smacks of orientalism when a mystical teacher of color teaches white people how to appreciate their lives and b) arranged marriages aren’t unproblematic. I don’t think that you necessarily have to have romance for a marriage to work, but consent is an issue with arranged marriages where the people getting married don’t necessarily consent because they want somebody else to make their decision for them, but rather because of economic and/or traditional necessity. It gets even worse, when you consider that it’s usually older men who “go shopping” for younger wives – in this case the age difference between Kingsley and Choudhury is over 20 years (which is actually not as bad as it could have been). Also in this case there’s the added power imbalance of Jasleen, a barely alphabetized woman, coming to a strange country (where Darwan has been living for a long time), where she doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t have any connections apart from Darwan and doesn’t know the customs. That really isn’t the relationship model that anybody should hold up as ideal, even if Darwan is trying very hard to make Jasleen comfortable.
In the end [SPOILER] Darwan does fall for Wendy and she tells him that they can’t pursue it, even though she’s also in love with him, because it would reconfirm her cynic belief that no marriage can ever hold [/SPOILER], effectively putting Darwan the symbol above Darwan the (fallible) human being which didn’t fly too well for me, either. If they could have done without that development, the film would have been richer for it.
But at least Patricia Clarkson was amazing, as was Ben Kingsley (although it would have been nice if they had actually cast a Sikh. But at least they got the Indian part right). But I thought that Sarita Choudhury and her Jasleen really stole the show, not necessarily because Choudhury acts better than the other two (all three are really good), but because Jasleen and her character development was the most compelling to me.
Despite my hesitations, I did enjoy the film and they could have gone far more wrong than they did.