Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) is a literary critic who lives in New York City with her husband Ted (Jake Weber), their student daughter (Grace Gummer) having moved out of the family home and currently on a farm continuing her learning. But stormy waters are ahead for Wendy's marriage, as she has discovered Ted has been cheating on her with a younger woman, and this is not the first time this has happened either. To add insult to injury, to break this news he actually took her out for a meal so she would not make a scene in front of the other diners, but that's precisely what she has done, and they both storm out of the restaurant and into the taxi of Darwan (Ben Kingsley), who also works as a driving instructor: for Wendy, a fateful meeting.
The trio of actors Clarkson, Kingsley and director Isabel Coixet had worked together a few years before this on the drama Elegy, and had got along so well that they were keen to do so again. It took some time, but they managed it on Learning to Drive, an unassuming comedy drama with a touch of romance that did not necessarily play out quite how you would expect. Otherwise, in spite of co-starring an Anglo-Indian actor and director by a Spaniard, it would seem they were all bitten by the bug of New York for this was a film aiming to celebrate its better points while humorously acknowledging the personality of the city as a whole, and the individuals who populated it and lent it that character.
That premise was now Wendy doesn't have a husband around, she does not wish to rely on taxis or public transport to get about (the latter isn't even considered), and would prefer to drive herself. You've seen the title, you're ahead of them, she must indeed learn to drive, and after Darwan arrives at her house the day after the big break-up to return something she left in his cab, she makes a point of taking his business card for future reference. But this was as much a tale of his life as it was hers, and his experiences as an immigrant, specifically a political asylum seeker since he had been a persecuted Sikh in his country of origin, informed much of the drama, seeing NYC from an insider's and outsider's perspective.
Darwan is a spiritual man, in touch with his inner life and exuding a peace and tolerance that is not always shown by his fellow humans, which develops in a curious way in how he went about teaching driving. Just as in a Carry On film where you find yourself seeking out the double entendres in every other line, here his instructions as to how to cope on the road also worked out as life lessons, wisdom to exist by, which was one step away from rendering him a Mike Myers comedy character only Kingsley didn't play him for laughs. He was more serious than that, and you soon understood why as he conceals his illegal immigrant nephew (Avi Nash) from the authorities and must in the second half of the plot negotiate his way through an arranged marriage with Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury).
That latter would appear to scupper any chance of romance between Darwan and Wendy, in spite of coming across as if they would be very compatible and moreover being very aware of the fact, even going out on post-lessons "dates" where they open up about one another and become very good friends. Meanwhile Wendy tries alternately to get Ted back and try to start a fresh relationship with Peter (Matt Salinger) whose tantric sex techniques simply exhaust her in an example of the film's idea of saucy comedy. Such regular references did not sit entirely well with the gentler material of the two leads getting acquainted, but you imagine such crunching gear changes would sit better with some audiences than others, and there was pleasure to be had in simply watching Clarkson and Kingsley interact. But no matter that this was a combination not often seen on the screen, it did resolve itself into a bit of a cliché of female self-empowerment, nothing wrong with that but not as daring as it appeared to think it was. Music by Dhani Harrison and Paul Hicks.