Hold on. Apply the brakes. No, make that the full hand brake: is Ben Kingsley even allowed to dress up as Sikh?
I know the guy was Ghandi and Yitzak Stern and Don Logan so we can believe him as anything, but a Sikh, with long uncut hair under a pink turban and thick Indian accent? That’s who he is in Learning to Drive, a romantic dramedy which has as much good going for it, as it does shamefully bad.
Let’s start with the bad: Sir Ben blacking up. I think this was all very well back in the good old bad old days of Ghandi and Mind Your Language and that kind of stuff, but it can’t be any longer, not now. Not these days. If film is to change with the times, then this sort of casting must be one of the things that changes. Same with Sam Claflin pretending to be a quadriplegic in Me Before You. Let’s use real minorities at least.
Kingsley is nothing if not earnest and committed to the role of an exiled Indian taxi driver and driving instructor struggling to make a living in New York, along with plenty of other sikhs, some of whom are illegal.
The film**, as if to make amends for its casting, takes great care to portray the community sensitively, in an almost saintly light.
But here comes the movie’s other great dollop of bad – Kingsley’s character Darwan Singh Tur is mostly used to alleviate the troubles of a rich white woman, played, beautifully, by Patricia Clarkson. Because that’s what immigrants are for, right? To unblock the neuroses of white liberals.
Thankfully, the pair are both wonderful actors and they just about get away with it here, even if they do have to negotiate a traffic cone slalom of driving metaphors about stop signs and green lights and moving forward and taking the wheel.
Clarkson is Wendy, a respected book critic whose husband has just left her – we assume for one of his students – and whose daughter is spending the semester on a farm in Vermont. Wendy decides to hire Darwan to teach her drive, but of course his mystical Sikh methods teach her much more about life and taking new roads: “You only need a little courage, and a little gas,” he says, with a head nod.
Isobel Coixtet’s film has many fine moments – Clarkson shouting at her lawyer, or being fixed up on a date with a banker who practises tantric sex: “I can ejaculate on Thursday, if you like?” – and picks up a gear (ahem) when Darwan’s arranged wife suddenly enters the picture (Sarita Choudhury).
I was slightly reminded of the Tom McCarthy film The Visitor, with Richard Jenkins, which is much more honest about immigration and liberal academics in New York, though admittedly not half as romantic.