"Learning to Drive" plays it safe; keeps us firmly belted to our seats
Learning to Drive follows Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a book-reviewer who has been recently dumped up with by her cheating husband of 21 years. And quite predictably, thanks to the on-the-nose title, she decides to learn how to drive (shock, horror, gasp!). Queue Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh driving instructor who helps her though her emotional turmoil and the equally tumultuous New York traffic. It’s pretty obvious from that get go that I am not the target audience for this film: Jokes about male menopause don’t really get me chortling. The multiple, audible ‘mmm’s at the appearance of a swarthy muscular torso probably pushed me into uncomfortable territory. But I can say, from personal experience, that watching a sex scene with an entire cinema full of people 2 to 3+ times your age is not as glorious as it sounds. Suffice to say the film was total white, female middle age (and up) bait.
However, I was a fan of the long, understated shots and layers of diegetic sounds (good job sound editor) which set the tone. The style was very naturalistic, so much so that Wendy’s imagined conversations slip so well into the film that they are initially undiscernible from reality. Throughout the movie, the colour palette of soft tones was super relaxing and easy to watch (yeah sure, it makes me feel like having a nice earl grey and an early night, so sue me). The clear but cold tones for Wendy’s house juxtaposed nicely with the ochres of Darwan’s. But now that I’ve bought light to the cultural dichotomy within the film there’s a point I really have to make….
Kingsley, of Gujurati descent, is solid as always. But I can’t shake the feeling that the film adopted a slightly inappropriate and even callous representation of a cultural minority. This isn’t to discredit Kingley’s performance, but to me the movie on the whole was a blatantly White take on Indian culture. Although this may be useful to educate the middle-class older audience of a more ethnically diverse paradigm, taking this tack almost subverts the very concept it wishes to communicate. ‘Learning to Drive’ is not the only film this year that is guilty of this. Recently, Emma Stone controversially played a character of Hawaiian and Asian heritage in the film ‘Aloha’. ‘Pan’ has also copped plenty of backlash for the decision to cast Rooney Mara to play the character of Tiger Lily, diverting greatly from the character within the original fairytale. Way to go Hollywood. All I ask is this: are we truly being multicultural when we take the voice of the minority and distort it, almost beyond recognition, just to present it in a more easily digestible format for Western audiences? Personally, I can chew my own food.
Let’s move away from my disgust of Hollywood’s constant attempt to spew dominant ideology down our throats and move onto the symbolism within the film. The motif of driving is a perfect representation for moving on, which is largely what the film is about. To transport oneself away from emotional stagnancy and immovability seems to be what Wendy’s journey is really about. The parallel between the progress Wendy makes behind the wheel and in her personal life is so clear that I feel like braille is being pushed onto my eyeballs. That being said, Patricia Clarkson is one actress who I will always be willing to watch emotionally unfurl on screen. She gracefully walks the tightrope between wine-soaked wreck and acerbic, don’t-fuck-with-me dame.
In spite of Clarkson’s endlessly en-pointe delivery, the dialogue can be a bit on the nose; surely no one is that self-aware? I mean, Wtf are with all these comments about geophagy? The understated, simple exchanges are truly where the film shines. Major voltas of the car-crash-climax and languished denouement lagged in comparison. The film could have been cut down by at least 15 minutes. And I know it’s inevitable but I passionately LOATHE the last few minutes of a film when the score is just so figgin’ predictable. I can mentally see the subtitle state [Uplifting music] and it makes me watch to dry retch.
Darwan’s mantra “Seatbelt first” pretty much encapsulated the movie for me, it was nice but repeatedly played it safe.
2.7 out of 5 cackling grey haired women
"Learning to Drive" will be screening at Luna Palace Cinemas from October 8.