Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Aim high: Patricia Clarkson and Learning to Drive

Patricia Clarkson stars in director Isabel Coixet's Learning to Drive.

I wrote last week about the need for more stories about women, preferably told by women. Well, sometimes, the universe delivers – and handsomely at that. The demographic of middle-aged women is rarely represented on screen, and when it is, it hardly ever comes in a lead role – unless that woman is Meryl Streep. Usually, they are sage advisers, supportive wives and mothers, or shrewish bosses. At least one woman not named Streep, however, seems to have been able to buck that trend: Patricia Clarkson.

Now, you probably do recognize Clarkson as a wife, mother, or sage adviser from movies such as The Untouchables, The Green Mile, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In the independent film world, though, she is a leading lady in little gems such as The Station Agent and Cairo Time. Last week saw the release of Clarkson’s latest starring vehicle – pun intended – Learning to Drive, in which she plays a recently divorced New Yorker who finally decides to get her driver’s license.

Clarkson was in New York City last Friday for a screening of the movie at the Angelika Film Center and a question-and-answer session afterward with Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of Women and Hollywood. The conversation covered a wide range of topics such as the difficulties of getting a film made about an older woman, appearing nude on screen in your 50s, and how driving over the Queensboro Bridge is scary no matter who is in the car but especially nerve-wracking if your passenger is Sir Ben Kingsley.

“The proudest moment I’ve had since this film began was the night of the premiere,” said Clarkson. “I have a photo … This photo is Katha Pollitt, the essayist. It’s Sarah Kernochan, the screenwriter. It’s Isabel Coixet, the director. It’s Dana Friedman, the producer. It’s myself, and it’s Thelma Schoonmaker, the great editor. It’s that, and none of us are 25. None of us are 35. None of us are 45 – I’m gonna stop there.

“So, it is a remarkable movie, and it is something that I value and something I am so proud of, and that’s just the beginning. There are many other women. We had a female set designer. It was a powerhouse of women on this film … We have to aim high. We have to keep hoping that women’s voices [are heard] and that women are in front of and behind the camera as often as we can.”

In Learning to Drive, Clarkson plays Wendy, who is devastated when her husband, Ted (Jake Weber), leaves her for another woman. She determines to get back out in the world by signing up for driving lessons with Darwan (Kingsley), a Sikh immigrant from India who has received political asylum in the U.S. The film follows Wendy and Darwan’s growing friendship as she navigates her newly single life and as he adjusts to his arranged marriage.

“That’s what I love about this story,” said Clarkson. “I think this story is not a woman’s story. It is a story about beautiful and profound adult friendship, about people coming together from across cultures, but at the end of the day, they’re just two people.”

Clarkson, with Sir Ben Kingsley
The screenplay has issues with characters often stating outright the movie’s message and themes, but the chemistry between Clarkson and Kingsley, as well as their individual magnetism, is enough to overcome some clunky dialogue and rote plotting. Clarkson and Kingsley previously starred together in the well received drama Elegy, also directed by Coixet. While they were making that movie around 2008, Clarkson approached Coixet about working on this project together with Kingsley, whom Clarkson affectionately referred to as “Sir Ben.”

Learning to Drive became a passion project for Clarkson after she first read Pollitt’s essay, on which the film is based, in The New Yorker nearly 10 years ago. She then learned Friedman had gotten ahold of the movie rights and tracked down the script by Kernochan.

“I read it, and I thought that she had captured the heart of Katha in this adaptation,” said Clarkson. “I came on board, not realizing how long it would be before we actually rolled a camera, but it was such a beautiful and powerful story – a story that I felt was uniquely New York but the themes of it were larger and were universal. The combination, the humor and the pathos – and in surprising ways – I found alluring.”

Surprising is an oddly apt descriptor. Though the plot rarely takes a left turn off its predetermined path, Kernochan and Coixet are able to create an affecting portrait of middle-aged loneliness through a number of small, emotionally raw moments. The film’s opening scene is just such a moment, picking up after a disastrous dinner at which Ted has announced his intentions. They hail a cab – which is driven by Darwan, setting up his later meeting with Wendy after she leaves a bag in his car – and Ted and Wendy air out all their emotional baggage in an excruciating sequence in which neither pulls any punches.

Clarkson, with Jake Weber
Weber and Clarkson, who had worked together previously on the thriller Wendigo, immediately establish a broken relationship that has a long, painful history. Clarkson, in particular, lets everything hang out as she spits, swears, and sobs her way through the scene. Wendy is not prepared to accept that she shares the responsibility for her failed marriage, and she will spend the rest of the film coming to terms with the kind of person she is, warts and all.

“This is one of the reasons I wanted to make this film,” said Clarkson. “I love the character of Wendy. I like playing women who are flawed. I think that is a big step forward for women. We don’t always have to be heroic and great. It’s nice to be heroic and to play great historical figures, but it’s also nice to play just an ordinary woman, a woman who is flawed and complicated and angry and hopefully also sexy – a fully formed person and not sympathetic in ways that I find valid and valuable on film.”

The beauty of a film about women, by women, is that the filmmakers have the license and insight to be honest about the real experiences of middle-aged women. Where male producers and directors might shy away from putting the 55-year-old Clarkson on screen naked, Learning to Drive dives into the territory with gusto. In one of the film’s most hilarious and authentic scenes, Wendy ends up in bed with a man she has been set up with, and they practice tantric lovemaking. On its own, the scene is frank and funny and features a brave performance from Clarkson, but it is simply an extension of the film’s larger commitment to truth.

“They’re never easy, all of those emotional scenes, but when you have great New York actors or Sir Ben Kingsley by your side and Isabel Coixet behind the camera, it always makes it better,” said Clarkson. “What I love about the tantric sex scene – I can’t wait for my father to see this film; I warned my mother an ambulance must be standing by. It’s lovely that we have naked younger people on film, but you know, I think it’s incredibly important that we have people of a certain age naked, older people naked, because when you’re older, we all are still naked. We do get naked, don’t we? … I just think it’s an important part of cinema that we continue to see all people.”

Whether those people are naked or not, the mission to see all people on screen is an important one, and it will take passionate filmmakers such as Clarkson, Coixet, Friedman, and Kernochan to see that mission through to its end. Hopefully that end includes a world in which stories about real women, told by women, are not the exception but simply another part of the cinematic landscape.

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