Michelle Duncan

Driving Lessons

driving lessons

Like the driving test you just nearly passed except that you nicked the curb, forgot to turn on the blinker, and failed to parallel park. You wouldn’t suspect anything by looking at the cast list though. Julie Walters and Laura Linney are able anchors, Rupert Grint is the most natural if not the flashiest actor of the Harry Potter trio, and Nicholas Farrell is as reliable as he is versatile. But their combined effort can’t rescue the movie from its lumpy plot and weak characterization.

Laura Linney is the most ill-used amongst all the actors, portraying a shrill mother and wife to shy son Ben (Grint) and henpecked vicar husband Robert (Farrell). Laura (Linney) wields her family’s religion with proficiency and uses it for emotional blackmail. She takes advantage of Ben’s learner’s permit and forces him ferry her to and from trysts with the charismatic and handsome new cleric Peter (Milburn) as part of his driving lessons. Linney is capable of playing a witchy antagonist, but the only skill she employs here is that of barking tart one liners. “Mobiles give you cancer!” “When you went with that actress, you left God’s house!”

Julie Walters fares a little better, but her performance as a retired and slightly loony thespian Dame Evie Walton is also given to caricature. It’s no wonder that the socially ill-adjusted Ben, whom she has hired as a personal assistant, doubts their working relationship. He stays on in part because Evie offers him respite from his domineering mother but also because she treats his literary ambitions with seriousness.

Walters takes her usual English quirk act and dials it up a few notches, as if being more eccentric would give this film more personality. It does, ever so slightly. Her crumbling Dame Evie pushes Ben to shed his timidity via spontaneous camping trips and readings in Edinburgh. These herky-jerky adventures culminate in a Bible school drama with Ben as the eucalyptus tree.

The perpetually awkward Grint is typecast but a good fit nonetheless. He does not make much of an effort to break from his Ron Weasley role (as opposed to say Daniel Radcliffe who famously bared his bits in Equus), so think of his character as Ron trying to make it in Muggleworld. He best captures the naive confidence of a 17 year old when he confronts his father about his parents’ relationship. “You should have talked to me. I’d have understood. I’m a poet. I understand the power of words.” Indeed, but even poets must be in want of an audience.

Released: 2006
Prod: Julia Chasman
Dir: Jeremy Brock
Writer: Jeremy Brock
Cast: Julie Walters, Rupert Grint, Laura Linney, Nicholas Farrell, Michelle Duncan, Oliver Milburn, Jim Norton, Tasmin Egerton
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2013