Driving Lessons Review
Seventeen-year-old Ben (Rupert Grint) is reaching a crossroads in his life. His parents' marriage would seem to be failing, the girl that he's in love with thinks he's weird and he's failed his driving test after crashing the car. He's shy, confused by the Christian faith of his parents, which he pays lip service to, and desperately short of money to pay for driving lessons. And the man who's lodging in his spare room would appear to be getting more and more strange. But then an advertisement appears in a Christian newspaper asking for a young assistant to an aging female actress a short walk from his house and Ben decides to call on her.
Arriving at the agreed time, Ben meets Dame Evie Walton (Julie Walters) in her garden whilst she's arguing with her shears, unleashing a torrent of swearing in their direction the likes of which Ben hasn't heard before. Agreeing terms, Ben begins work the next morning and, contrary to his expectations, actually enjoys being away from his home. But over the coming days, weeks and long summer evenings, Ben finds his experiencing of life tearing himself away from his parents, less so his father (Nicholas Farrell), a Church of England vicar, than his evangelical Christian mother (Laura Linney), who would appear to be falling under the spell of a charismatic new preacher (Oliver Milburn). Then Evie takes him camping and then to Edinburgh for a reading at the festival, on which he finds the joys of sex, alcohol and swearing. Home seems like so very, very far away...
The Church of England doesn't tend to get very much support within the popular media. Lampooned, yes. Spoken of? Frequently. Met with blind indifference? More often than not I should say, so it's rare to see a film that actually stands up for the Church, defending it even against the rise of evangelical Christianity. In on particularly notable scene - it comes as Ben first calls on Evie and ends as he reads the note on her door telling him that she is in the garden - Ben's father takes to the pulpit to make what is rather a well-considered sermon for an everyday service. "If you say to me, "Am I a Christian?" I say to you, "If you strive to do good, then you are a Christian." If you don't seek to hurt or betray others, you're a Christian. If you're true to yourself and treat others as you'd have them treat you, you're a Christian. The more a person parades their Christianity for the benefit of others, the less I'm inclined to trust the Christianity they claim to bring...How you express that - the way, the manner, the means at your disposal - these things are of no consequence, be you Christian or atheist, unless in your heart you are true."
Coming out of this moment, Driving Lessons draws a line between the decent Christianity of the Church of England - as practiced by Ben's father - and the self-serving evangelical Christianity of his mother. One draws Ben to seek to assist others, namely Evie, without regard to what others might think whilst the other knocks his confidence time and again such that he is almost unable to function in company, considering that all that matters is what others see in us, being less Christian deeds than words. His mother, well played by Laura Linney, takes in a lodger whose marriage has broken down, less to actually provide some assistance to the man than to present herself to the evangelical Crhistian community as one who cares. Once he's safely under the covers in Ben's old room, she doesn't give a tinker's cuss about the man, who repays her lack of interest by eating all their food, wearing her clothes and, eventually, running her over in her own car outside a church hall. There is, contrary to the Christian message of the film, some sense of justice in this. In contrast to this, Ben and his father share some very quiet moments together, not least their putting up of a tent in their garden.
Oh, there is the story involving Evie but though there are many moments that are very funny, it's rather predictable fare. Driving Lessons takes the very shy Ben out of his home in London first camping - where he enjoys his first taste of alcohol - to the Edinburgh festival where he abandons Evie to spend a night with Bryony (Michelle Duncan). There is much growing up in Driving Lessons, all of which heads for the expected moment when Ben will tell someone to, "Fuck off!" Thankfully, not so much for the sight of Rupert Grint and Julie Walters being locked in an embrace as for its avoiding the cliche, Driving Lessons avoids any suggestion of an affair between the two leads, keeping them at a metaphorical arm's length, needing each other but unafraid to spit the occasional cup of venom at one another. And yet there are some glorious moments of comedy, such as Julie Walters bursting into a parish hall immediately after Laura Linney, narrating a play about Christ, talks of hearing the voice of God. "I've come for my boy?", Walters shouts at the congregation before leading them, somewhat preposterously it must be said, into a full evangelical sing-along.
However, by far the best thing about Driving Lessons is its setting, appearing to have been filmed on the same balmy summer evening as John Gordon Sinclair and Clare Grogan's walk through the park at the end of Gregory's Girl. The camping trip to a leafy park, through a reading of Shakespeare during a lovely sunset to the putting up of a tent in Ben's back garden under a lush willow tree, Driving Lessons has a light summer feel to it, which helps draw out the comedy in the situation. Never very sweet but, more often than not, happy to lead the audience towards the expected, it's simple fare but very respectable.
Never a particularly-exciting looking film, Tartan have granted Driving Lessons a very respectable transfer, not particularly sharp but well-suited to the soft summer evenings on which the film is set. When it moves the action to Edinburgh and out of the suburbs of London, the effect is quite jarring so used have we become to the look of sunlight being filtered through the leafy gardens of suburbia and the smog of the city. However, the transfer remains good throughout with a good bitrate, a nice colour balance and, though one shouldn't see them on so recent a release, no faults in the print.
It being a Tartan release, there is not only a DD2.0 Stereo track, which is the default, but also DD5.1 and DTS surround tracks. However, being the kind of film that it is, there isn't a good deal happening in the rear speakers nor on the subwoofer other than adding some ambient sounds but the quality of the audio tracks is very good. Finally, whilst this check disc had no subtitles, the case and online retailers seem to state that there are English subs on the retail version. However, purchase with care if they are necessary, particularly as it's worth saying that the menus on this disc look to be complete and there's no mention of subtitles in the setup options.
Commentary: Jeremy Brock is awfully softly-spoken and though he offers a good deal of behind-the-scenes chatter, he doesn't offer very much in the way of gossip nor any real insight into the film. Instead, he drifts between explaining the turns of the plot and praising his cast and crew, tending towards the latter when, as this review makes clear, there isn't a great deal of twisting in the plotting of Driving Lessons.
Interview w/ Rupert Grint and Julie Walters (5m52s): Featured together, the two stars of Driving Lessons talk about their differing backgrounds, the inspiration behind the film and how much fun was to be had on the set. Not offering very much time, this is an inconsequential promotional interview, which adds little to the disc.
Finally, there are a set of Trailers, both for this film (2m32s) as well as for Little Fish, p.s. and U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha.
I'm not a member of the Church of England but I don't mind it, thinking that it's reading of Christianity, if woolly-headed at times, is actually rather decent. However, I can't be doing with evangelical Christians, who are as likely to be found in a happy-clappy session in a church hall as they are at a Christian rave, replacing all mention of various hallucinogens with those of Jesus. As for Christian rock, I'd sooner posit myself naked at the home of Anton LaVey than listen to any of it. And they do seem to have an unhealthy preoccupation with exorcism, virginity and speaking in tongues, none of which implies that their intentions are at all decent. Praise be, then, for a film that gently defends the Church of England in amongst a soothing coming-of-age comedy. It proved perfectly entertaining this Christmas evening. Then again, the sight of a lovely summer and the cosiness of the story may have worked wonders in contrast to the dreary weather outside.