Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson star in Isabel Coixet’s Learning to Drive. Photograph: Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
The sex scene in Learning to Drive is among the least erotic in recent film history. The director, Isabel Coixet, shows us neither frontal nudity nor moments of intimate human connection. The middle-aged participants are the fragile Wendy Shields (Patricia Clarkson, an actress who gets better with age) and the sturdy Greenwich banker Peter (Matt Salinger, the son of J. D.). Wendy is a literary critic and New York City divorcée, whose helpful friend, hoping to get her back into circulation, has introduced her to an eligible and, she thought, suitable man. They actually have little in common, but end up in bed. Peter, somewhere on the autism spectrum, operates on the theory that more and longer is what women want. Wendy thinks having sex with him is a requirement for her standing as a sophisticated woman.
After laborious exertions, she asks, exasperated, “Are you ever going to ejaculate?” This would be a disheartening, not to say deflating, comment for almost any man—but not Peter. Without missing a stroke he explains that he practices tantric sex and is quite prepared to continue. His schedule would allow him to return on Thursday to ejaculate if that is her preference. The exchange is at once funny and sad: Eros foundering on the reef of solipsism.
Though the scene captures the spirit of the narrative—a bitter but comic account of a woman’s midlife crisis—it is nowhere to be found in Katha Pollitt’s memoir, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories (2007), on which the screenplay is based. Pollitt had a reputation as a high-powered and tough-minded feminist and a successful poet; then came this surprisingly candid memoir. Its first installment in The New Yorker described the breakup with her lover, “a womanizer, a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, a maniac, a psychopath.” Despite the story’s humor, she seemed to mean it. How could she have lived with such a person for seven years? Part of the frisson of the New Yorker story was that Pollitt was making her private life public. Many readers knew who she was, and some recognized the people she was outing. But it was no tell-all, and if she was scathing about her former lover and his obliging women, some of whom she thought were her friends, she also distances herself with irony and lets her readers know that she had a brilliant British academic waiting in the wings. She later married him.
Between men she is learning to drive, a metaphor for many things: overcoming her emotional blindness, taking care of herself, getting over the man who cheated on her and left for a younger woman willing to wake him up in the morning with a blowjob—apparently what every male lover wants and expects. Her teacher is a kindly Filipino who offers her support and friendship. Pollitt tells us a woman therapist had once urged her to learn to drive as an example for her daughter, but she had not heeded this prescription. As it turns out, she and her teacher form a therapeutic alliance: they work together to solve her problem, she vents and fantasizes, she gets in touch with reality in her life and in the traffic of New York City. Between fancies of running down her former lover and the friends who betrayed her, the driving lessons take her to the quieter streets, where she experiences serenity. And she has a clarifying insight: “All my adult life I had wanted to rescue women—but I had also felt superior to the ones I tried to help and was annoyed when they didn’t take my excellent advice: don’t waste your fertile years on that married man. . . . get a lawyer, get a better lawyer. Look, see, face facts. . . . I had not taken my own advice either. The truth was. . . . I was just like them.” Hers is a feminist howl of self-recognition. Yet despite the clarity and brilliance of the memoir, it is difficult to believe that anyone could find a screenplay in it.
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Before Learning to Drive, Coixet had taken on an even greater challenge: transforming into film Philip Roth’s sex- and death-obsessed novel The Dying Animal (2001). Its protagonist is Professor David Kepesh, who in a previous Roth novel had metamorphosed into a man-sized woman’s breast blubbering on his analyst’s couch. This time Kepesh is obsessed with breasts and finds the perfect ones, D-cups with brown saucer nipples, that come attached to a young woman, Consuela Castillo. She is a student in a seminar he teaches; she falls in love with him and he with her perfect mammary glands. It is among those of Roth’s works most despised by feminist critics. Coixet and her writer filed down the male chauvinist edges of the novel and allowed Consuela to emerge as a person. The result was a successful arthouse film aptly renamed Elegy (2008). Ben Kingsley played Kepesh; Penelope Cruz Consuela. Clarkson played Carolyn, a woman always available to Kepesh for sex with no strings attached.
Between men she is learning to drive, a metaphor for many things: overcoming her emotional blindness, taking care of herself, getting over the man who cheated on her.
Learning to Drive reunites Coixet with Clarkson and Kingsley and takes them in a different direction. But Elegy clarifies Coixet’s project in Learning to Drive: the antithesis of the Roth adaptation. Instead of the male world filled with morbid obsessive sex, we have the real world of women. Instead of Kingsley as convincing lecher, we get an upright man of faith. Instead of Clarkson as sex slave, we see an honest woman. Once again Coixet and her writer filed down the chauvinist edges, but this time they belong to Pollitt’s feminism. Clarkson’s Wendy is fragile, distracted, and vulnerable—yes, a victim. Learning to Drive is about overcoming her innate timidity.
At the heart of the film is Wendy’s relationship with Darwan (Kingsley). Pollitt’s Filipino has become Wendy’s Sikh, who has the gravitas Wendy lacks. A university professor in his home country and a political refugee in New York City, he drives a taxi at night and teaches driving lessons by day to eke out a living. The tantric banker appears in the film only to establish Darwan’s admirable character. The light-skinned American from Greenwich is an insensitive fool whom women can despise, while the dark-skinned Sikh from Queens is a man of intelligence and integrity whom women can admire. We have seen all this before. Indeed one has the feeling that the cast are all like-minded friends of Coixet who had a good time together making a film that challenged none of them, and certainly not the audience.
Kingsley is in the sixth decade of his acting career. The child of an Indian father and British mother, he has always eased comfortably into ethnic roles. His unforgettable Gandhi earned him a richly deserved Oscar in 1982. He often plays Jews: Anne Franks’s father in the ABC series Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001), Fagin in Oliver Twist (2005), Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List (1993), Meyer Lansky in Bugsy (1991). He was an Iranian in The House of Sand and Fog (2003), giving an unforgettable performance. Whatever the ethnicity of his character, he seems always to deliver. His role as Darwan will disappoint some, however, because it demands so little of him. With a beard and turban he is a believable Sikh. He is also a man of rectitude, without pretense, and in her long course of driving lessons Wendy will discover how much she has in common with her teacher.
Clarkson’s career is almost as extensive as Kingsley’s. She is primarily a character actor who began on television. Although she often played women damaged by life, something likeable in her always evoked one’s sympathy. She is attractive without being glamorous and has become a mainstay of independent films. What she is not, and has never played, is a strong-willed, tough-minded intellectual—someone such as Pollitt. In casting her, Coixet subverted the feminist mode of protest; the iron and the irony in Pollitt’s narrative are gone. It is almost impossible to believe that Wendy has a career as a New York City literary critic.
Wendy is a helpless, vulnerable woman. She has friends but no one to love. Unlike Pollitt, Wendy has a particular reason for learning to drive: she wants to be able to visit her daughter Tasha, who lives on a farm in Vermont. Tasha (Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter) is less than enthusiastic about this, and by the time Wendy has her license, Tasha is leaving Vermont. We come to realize that Wendy is alone in her world.
Darwan is equally alone. He lives with other Sikhs crowded into a small apartment. They are undocumented, uncultured, surviving hand to mouth, fearful of immigration authorities. And Darwan is about to commit to an arranged marriage with an illiterate woman who has come from India; she will have nothing in common with her cultivated, educated husband.
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Throughout the driving lessons, the subtext is whether teacher and student will overcome the social and cultural divide to achieve human intimacy. They do come to know and care about each other. Will Wendy fall into Darwan’s arms as their friendship grows?
When Wendy, with her license, nervously but triumphantly drives across the Queensboro Bridge, it seems that Eros will break out. Darwan makes the first move, suggesting they might “see each other.” But in her driving lesson-qua-therapy-session, Wendy has learned Sikh rectitude. She has gained the moral strength to resist temptation; she advises Darwan to continue on the path of fidelity and sends him on his way. We see Darwan patiently teaching his new wife to read, thus freeing her to live and enjoy her new country. If Wendy remains alone and unloved, she nevertheless has learned caritas. One doubts it would be enough to sustain a New York City literary critic.