Modern life is so big, fast-paced and noisy that it’s easy to forget that the transformative experiences that define us, for good or ill, tend to take place unexpectedly in small, quiet, almost unnoticeable ways.
It’s a lesson that two quite different people in New York City learn one night in Isabel Coixet’s Learning to Drive when one gets into the other’s cab, the former at quite possibly the lowest point in her life, the latter caught in a routine that repeats itself, until that point in time, with a monotonous, certain regularity.
The passenger is Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson in achingly vulnerable form), a highly-regarded book reviewer who freely admits she prizes books above anything else, who is being told by her husband Ted (Jake Weber) that their marriage is over in the most public, and emotionally brutal of ways that their marriage is over.
Wendy is quite understandably in shock, unable to process that her perfect life – her once-loving husband, their cosy life in their beloved townhouse – is in ruins, that her husband is leaving her for another woman who it turns out, to her horror later on, is an author she has always greatly admired.
Witnessing this life in freefall is Sikh taxi driver Darwan Singh Tur (Ben Kingsley), who spends his days and nights in a blur of learner driver instructing and taxi driving, fitting in sleep and cricket matches with his Indian housemates where he can.
His is an existence defined by utilitarian need for the most part – make enough money to carve out his own piece of the American Dream, and justify his worthiness for the political asylum he was granted many years before.
The meeting of their two quite disparate worlds that night isn’t heralded by the angels, it isn’t a fireworks and neon signs moment that the world notices in awe and wonder.
Rather, it is utterly unremarkable in many ways, and yet subsequently profoundly meaningful as the two are drawn together first by Wendy’s need to get her driver’s license – Ted always drove her everywhere and his departure opens a quite practical void in her life – and then by a friendship that builds in small snippets of conversations sandwiched between Darwan’s calmly-delivered instructions on when to bake, when to accelerate and when to look ahead.
Much of the movie takes place on these drives that criss-cross New York and its many boroughs, ostensibly just driving lessons but as Darwan and Wendy share more and more of their lives with each other, again in entirely unspectacular, incremental but vitally important ways, they become increasingly crucial to the way each of them chooses to move on with their lives.
Cumulatively their influence on each other is deeply meaningful but that point is only reached through small carefully-words, uneventfully delivered insights and shared moments of meditative silence and Sarah Kernochan’s script takes care not to rush their step-by-step progress.
Little bit by little bit Wendy comes to realise that Ted is gone for good this time – he had previously left her temporarily at the 7 and 14 year marks – and that she must build a life that relies less on him, and her beloved books and more on a world that a difficult childhood in Queens, where Darwan and where and she initially doesn’t want to go on one of their lessons, forced her to flee from active engagement with many years before.
Darwan for his part finally consents to an arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury), approaching it with his customary practicality, only to learn, with some well-chosen insights from Wendy that loving a woman, especially one who he has never before they said “I do” is far more nuanced a proposition that anything he has encountered before.
Both Wendy and Darwan are forced to confront the fact that they are wholly unprepared for their new lives and must set aside all sorts of preexisting assumptions and sureties if their chosen paths are going to have any chance of success.
Interestingly, and it’s emblematic of Learning to Drive‘s overall mindset, there is but the barest hint of romance between the two before they both acknowledge, Wendy much sooner than Darwan that they are in each other’s lives for a season, and that is all that’s needed.
There are no grand epiphanies for either of the, no road to Damascus blinding realisations where they realise what must be done; simply quite, unobtrusive realisations that give way to small substantial steps that eventually become whole new, utterly unexpected lives.
The chemistry between Clarkson and Kingsley is appropriately understated but palpable, with both actors investing this most unusual of friendships with a believability and authenticity that convinces you they were meant to be with each other, and then when their time together done, they were not.
Even their eventual breaking away from each other is heartfelt but subtlely-handled, a brief, moving conversation in a car yard that gives way to Darwan approaching his marriage in a whole new way and Wendy setting off to Vermont in her new car to visit her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer).
That final scene is Learning to Drive to a tee – two people tentatively and uncertainly taking unexpected steps out into the world, sharing in ways small and unspectacular that builds a quiet, un-showy intimacy, one that eventually transforms them both in ways neither would have expected on that tumultuous night in the taxi.
It’s a sweet, moving film that reminds us that life is rarely as big and bold as many movies might suggest; rather it takes place in the out of the way places, the meandering, seemly inconsequential conversations we have without thinking, and we are profoundly changed, often without even realising it is happening.