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Gentle film examines differing views on marriage

  • BROAD GREEN PICTURES
    Patricia Clarkson plays a high-strung literary star whose husband leaves her in “Learning to Drive.”
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Among the charms of "Learning to Drive," a small, observant dual portrait of a New York book critic and her Indian-American driving instructor, are the detailed, lived-in performances of its stars, Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley. The film belongs to a school of grown-up, low-drama two-handers, of which the most famous example is "Driving Miss Daisy," but "Learning to Drive" isn’t half as sentimental. As this movie, directed by Isabel Coixet, tracks the deepening friendship between people from different cultures and backgrounds, it acquires an unforced metaphorical resonance.

Wendy Shields (Clarkson) is a high-strung Manhattan literary star whose marriage explodes when her husband, Ted (Jake Weber), abruptly leaves her for another woman. Adapted from an essay in the New Yorker by feminist author Katha Pollitt, the movie lightly touches on many subjects: divorce, rage and financial warfare; conflicting philosophies of marriage; and mother-daughter strife.

In the concise, droll screenplay by Sarah Kernochan ("9 1/2 Weeks"), the seven-year relationship of Pollitt’s essay has become a 21-year marriage, the better to show the chasm between Indian and American marital customs and to suggest that the U.S. ideal of unlimited personal freedom has its price.

Rated: R
***
Opens Friday at Kahala 8

"LEARNING TO DRIVE"

Wendy is an upper-middle-class woman of letters. One of her saddest realizations is that her marriage might have lasted had her passion for literature not taken precedence. This is the rare film that conveys the intense, private experience of the dedicated reader.

Like many New Yorkers, Wendy has relied on public transportation. When her marriage ends she has to learn to drive if she wants to visit her fiery college-age daughter in Vermont.

Her driving teacher, Darwan (Kingsley), is a Sikh Indian and part-time cabdriver who shares a drab Queens apartment with fellow Indian immigrants, some of whom are in the country illegally. In India, Darwan was a college professor, imprisoned for his religious beliefs. He won political asylum in the United States.

Clarkson conveys the mysterious allure of a sensual woman with secrets. Under her seductive charm percolates a volatile, combative temperament. Kingsley’s penetrating gaze can project everything from pure evil to near-divinity, and in "Learning to Drive" his demeanor is benign but not holy. With his stiff-backed posture and alert expression, he projects an unflappable self-control.

Darwan is about to enter into an arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), a Sikh woman of whom he knows next to nothing beyond that they were born in neighboring villages.

Moments of humor gently tilt "Learning to Drive" toward comedy. In the wittiest scene, a blind date that turns into a one-night stand leaves Wendy wrung out. Such little detours add a lighthearted gloss to a delicate film that steers clear of preaching or of slipping into mawkishness.

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