Monday, May 27, 2024

Ben Kingsley– You Forgot He’s Half Indian– Came in Handy When Producers Couldn’t Get Financing for “Learning to Drive”


Sir Ben Kingsley plays a transplanted Sikh cabdriver in “Learning to Drive” so well that you’d think he’s Indian. And he did get an Oscar for playing “Gandhi.” Oh wait– Sir Ben is indeed half Indian, his father was an Indian doctor.

This came in handy when producers of this gem of a movie, which premiered last night, couldn’t get financing with a full Indian actor, the great Irffan Khan. (He’s only the star of “Jurassic World,” the year’s biggest movie.)

In came Kingsley to this unusual and wonderful film that features an Oscar worthy performance by Patricia Clarkson, as well as editing by Martin Scorsese Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker and a rare appearance by Matt Salinger, the actor son of the late JD Salinger. Also in the movie are Sarita Choudhury, Grace Gummer, and Jake Weber, all well cast.

And even though Kingsley is after all Sir Ben Kingsley, he’s so adept that he makes the whole thing look easy. It isn’t. His character, Darwan, is a cab driver at night and teaches drivers’ ed during the day. His new student is Wendy, famed book critic who owns a beautiful townhouse on West 98th St. The movie is based on a story by Katha Pollitt, and is more or less true. Sarah Kernochan, whose credits date back to 1986’s “Nine and 1/2 Weeks” (seems impossible but ok), fleshed out Pollitt’s story and amplified it.

Clarkson brings a humor and grace to Wendy that’s missing from modern cinema. She is just lovely, and makes Wendy’s arc a nuanced juxtaposition to Darwat’s changing life as an American citizen.

We get two really terrific indie films this weekend — “Learning to Drive” and “Grandma” with Lily Tomlin. No one can say “there’s nothing to see” anymore, that’s for sure. And for women’s roles, Clarkson and Tomlin can’t be beat.

Oh yes, all the trivia: director Isabelle Coixette coaxed Salinger out of retirement (he hadn’t acted in five years). She liked him so much she put him her next movie, as well.

And Thelma Schoonmaker– never ever works for anyone but Martin Scorsese. But when “Silence” was put off for a few months, she answered a request from Clarkson, who went to Scorsese and asked for the famed Oscar winning editor. The result is a master class in film editing. Nice, nice, work!

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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