Oh no, I thought at first, Ben Kingsley’s being an Indian again (to be fair, his father is of Gujarati descent). It is a shame that a genuine Sikh could not have been found to play Darwan, but I had no trouble casting that PC criticism from my mind as events seamlessly and quietly unfolded. Darwan is a New York cabbie who, to make ends meet, also works as a driving instructor. Fate has him witness the marriage break-up of Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) and Ted (Jake Weber) in the back seat of his cab one night and serendipity sends him to Wendy’s door the next day to return some documents that she’d left behind. There is a jumpiness about these establishment scenes that doesn’t quite fit with Clarkson’s unhurried, placid style – overwrought doesn’t suit her – but Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s elegant and at times caustic movie soon finds its groove.
As part of her new, independent life, Wendy belatedly decides that she will employ Darwan to teach her to drive – the metaphor is an obvious one – and the pair’s displaced hearts grow closer during the lessons. It could so easily descend into a deep vat of cheese, but Coixet keeps it real with diversions into sexual politics, cultural chasms and American xenophobia – Darwan is racially profiled by police and mocked as an Osama bin Laden look-alike by a couple of young goons. She steadfastly refuses to let her characters become stereotypes and does not countenance the idea that Wendy will wallow in victimhood. Kingsley and Clarkson are fantastic together – he as the calming influence and she as the bird mending its broken wing. Sarita Choudhury’s Jasleen, the bride whom Darwan has never met, and Avi Nash as the nephew whose adherence to the old ways has waned in the New World, offer challenging insights as Coixet resists going where the mainstream anticipates. The closing sequence of optimism and liberation left me feeling that I had just enjoyed one of the year’s best films.