Life Lessons: Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson have a cultural collision in Isabel Coixet’s ‘Learning to Drive’

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Two radically different worlds converge with remarkable ease and assurance in Learning to Drive, a lovely, humane film from Catalan director Isabel Coixet, opening on August 21 from Broad Green Pictures.

As a general rule, Coixet’s films—whether Spanish (The Secret Life of Words) or Canadian (My Life Without Me)—sort out the universality in mixed groups of characters. “I don’t believe in human boundaries and borders,” she is quick to assert. “I’ve lived and worked just about everywhere, and what has struck me most is the fact that people the world over, regardless of their ethnicity, are astonishingly similar. A person is not defined by the culture that he comes from. I try to look beyond that.”

It has been said that her pictures take a departure from the traditional national cinema of Spain, that they help to “untangle films from their national content…clearing the path for thinking about national film from different perspectives.”

Consequently, her cultural clashes are more of a cultural coming-together, and this particular case-in-point demonstrates that quite well—a little something that she whipped together out of New York City’s multi-national melting pot in a five-week shoot. Learning to Drive plausibly pairs the improbable: Darwan, an India-born Sikh taxi hack (Ben Kingsley), and Wendy, a white-bread Manhattan literary critic (Patricia Clarkson), freshly dumped by her faithless husband of 21 years (Jake Weber) in a public restaurant. In fact, their marriage gasps its last in the backseat of Darwan’s cab, and he takes Wendy tearfully home.

Not only does Wendy’s husband leave her high and dry, he leaves her immobile. Like a true New Yorker, Wendy has never bothered to learn to drive, so, being a sympathetic soul, the cabbie liberates her by offering his daytime services as a driving instructor.

Said another way, Learning to Drive is learning to survive. “I guess it’s a rather obvious metaphor, but it’s still a valid one, I think,” Coixet says. “These characters are very decent people, and they mutually benefit from getting to know each other.”

They get to know each other well enough, in fact, not to fall in love. The stage may be handily set for a East-dates-West situation, but Coixet and her co-scripter Sarah Kernochan resist the temptation and settle for genuine friendship between a grown-up man and woman (which, come to think of it, is a far rarer film commodity).

The emphasis here is on the new worlds that each opens up for the other and how both of them grow emotionally from this mutual exchange and exposure. At the outset, they are coming from opposite directions—Wendy is extricating herself from a crumbling union, and Darwan is heading into an arranged marriage with a candidate newly arrived from India (Sarita Choudhury). The resulting sound is two cultures clanging together, but the characters are wise and self-aware enough to ride it out.

As played subtly and compassionately by Kingsley and Clarkson, there’s real feeling in the relationship, but it is restrained—much like that of Anna and the King of Siam. The chemistry between the two actors had been tested before by Coixet when they filmed Elegy in 2008. They played a couple who shared a “friendship with benefits” for 20 years until it was disrupted by another—and younger—woman (Penelope Cruz).

“That was actually when this project started,” recalls Coixet. “I remember how excited Patricia was about an article she was reading. She called it to my attention and said it would make a wonderful movie—and, almost six years later, it has.”

The article was an autobiographical essay that political columnist Katha Pollitt wrote for The New Yorker in 2002 about how she learned to cope when her seven-year relationship went south. In real life and in the story, her “life coach” was a Filipino driving instructor. (The nationality switch was made to oblige Kingsley.)

Learning to Drive has cruised the international film-festival circuit before going into national release. It placed second for the People’s Choice Award in Toronto in 2014 and, earlier this year, nabbed a nomination for the Audience Award at Edinburgh.

Film festivals are familiar turf for Coixet, who has spent almost half of her 55 years making movies, amassing three-dozen awards along the way.  She grew up watching all manner of movies at a Barcelona theatre where her grandmother manned the box office. That experience pointed her in the direction of her career. She eschewed film school and, instead, learned on the job, doing documentaries and commercials.

She made her feature-directing debut with 1988’s Demasiado viego para morir joven (Too Old to Die Young), which earned her a Goya Award nomination in Spain for best new director. Unfortunately, it also got her some critical brickbats, which drove her from features for eight years. The first year, she completely swore off seeing any movies or television. Gradually, gingerly, she began getting back on the horse by making commercials (sometimes as many as 80 in one year), and this work gave her cinematic confidence and technical skill for her comeback in features.

Now one of Spain’s most prolific filmmakers, she has a rep that attracts a variety of artists. Meryl Streep’s daughter, Grace Gummer, and J. D. Salinger’s son, Matt, have roles in Learning to Drive; it has a score by the son of a Beatle, Dhani Harrison, and editing by Martin Scorsese’s own personal miracle-worker, Thelma Schoonmaker.

“Emotionally, I think of Learning to Drive as a summer movie—my next one will be a winter movie,” Coixet promises. It is an Arctic air-blast about Admiral Peary called Nobody Wants the Night and stars Juliette Binoche, Rinko Kikuchi and Gabriel Byrne.

In October, she starts shooting The Bookshop with Emily Mortimer. As you can see, she knows no bounds or boundaries when she goes hunting for the right actors.

That also goes for her job description. Coixet is all over the movies she makes—as director, writer, producer, music supervisor. She has even been known to operate the camera. “The DPs don’t mind. It eliminates the middleman. Each film is my vision.”