Driven to dis­trac­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

JEREMY Brock is a Bri­tish writer who has gained a rep­u­ta­tion for well- crafted screen­plays with strong fe­male char­ac­ters: there was Judi Dench as queen Vic­to­ria in Mrs Brown and Cate Blanchett as the coura­geous wartime re­sis­tance fighter in Char­lotte Gray . With Driv­ing Lessons Brock, for the first time, has di­rected one of his scripts and again a for­mi­da­ble wo­man is at the cen­tre, in this case an age­ing ac­tor played with a great sense of fun by Julie Wal­ters.

This is ap­par­ently an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal story ( as a 17- year- old, Brock found a job with ac­tor Peggy Ashcroft), but de­spite some charm­ing el­e­ments, there are too many false notes, which prove to be in­tru­sive.

Like Harold and Maude , the much- loved Hal Ashby film of 1971 ( writ­ten by Aus­tralian Colin Hig­gins), Driv­ing Lessons ex­plores the re­la­tion­ship be­tween an el­derly wo­man and a boy, but Brock’s mat­ter- of- fact approach is a long way from the cheer­ful an­ar­chy of Ashby’s film.

The boy in this case is 17- year- old Ben, who is en­dur­ing the usual grow­ing pains of boys his age, though his are rather ac­cen­tu­ated by the at­ti­tudes of his par­ents. His fa­ther is a Church of Eng­land vicar and his mother — too possessive, too smoth­er­ing by half — is some­thing of a mon­ster, at least in Ben’s eyes, be­cause it’s quite ob­vi­ous she’s ne­glect­ing his fa­ther in favour of an­other man of the cloth.

Ru­pert Grint plays Ben. As he did with Ron Weasley in the Harry Pot­ter films, Grint suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing a multi- lay­ered char­ac­ter out of a po­ten­tially dull, sec­ond- string role, but here he seems less at ease. True, he’s play­ing an awk­ward teenager, but he plays Ben with­out the re­quired charisma and Wal­ters makes mince­meat of him.

So does Laura Lin­ney, mis­cast as his fool­ish mother: she seems to be act­ing in an­other kind of film al­to­gether, not very re­lated to the Lon­don sub­ur­ban scene against which this oddly old­fash­ioned movie takes place.

Dur­ing the long sum­mer hol­i­days, Ben, who has just failed his driv­ing test, finds work do­ing odd jobs for Evie Wal­ton ( Wal­ters), an ec­cen­tric, free- spir­ited vet­eran who re­sents that she is re­mem­bered th­ese days, if at all, for her ap­pear­ances in television shows of the 1980s, not for her stage per­for­mances.

Af­ter an awk­ward start, Evie and Ben be­come friends. The old wo­man helps the boy break free from his suf­fo­cat­ing par­ents and to ex­hibit some in­de­pen­dence. She’s even in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for his se­duc­tion of a sweet Scot­tish girl ( Michelle Dun­can) when she takes him away on a trip to Ed­in­burgh.

The mid­dle sec­tion of the film, in which the boy be­gins to re­spond to the un­con­ven­tional ways of his new friend, is the most suc­cess­ful, and it’s here that Wal­ters comes into her own.

Re­fus­ing to take no for an an­swer, she com­pels the boy to drive her to Scot­land ( il­le­gally be­cause he’s a learner and she doesn’t have a li­cence), where she is to ap­pear at a lit­er­ary func­tion. To pun­ish him, on his re­turn home his mother re­fuses to al­low him to see Evie and fur­ther hu­mil­i­ates him by de­mand­ing that he play a tree in a re­li­gious play she’s putting on at the lo­cal church hall.

In th­ese se­quences, which fea­ture this all- too- plau­si­ble the­atri­cal trav­esty, which is duly in­ter­rupted by a drunken Evie, Brock aims for low com­edy with­out much suc­cess. The mar­ginal char­ac­ter of a home­less old man who has been liv­ing with Ben and his par­ents is an ex­ceed­ingly strange ad­di­tion to what is al­ready a rather un­easy mix­ture. De­spite Wal­ters’s feisty and en­ter­tain­ing per­for­mance, Driv­ing Lessons leaves you feel­ing vaguely dis­sat­is­fied.

* * * IF the dire pre­dic­tions of the Swiss- made doc­u­men­tary fea­ture A Crude Awak­en­ing: The Oil Crash are any­thing to go by, it won’t be long be­fore Ben will be un­able to ac­quire the petrol to take those driv­ing lessons. Direc­tors Basil Gelpke and Ray McCor­mack have come up with a se­ries of in­con­ve­nient truths that make the Al Gore film look al­most op­ti­mistic.

There’s noth­ing here most of us didn’t al­ready know or strongly sus­pect but the film’s ac­cu­mu­la­tive power is de­rived from as­sem­bling all the dire facts and pre­dic­tions to­gether in one dread­pro­duc­ing tract.

Chirpy pro­pa­ganda films from the ’ 50s prom­ise un­lim­ited oil sup­plies and a pros­per­ous fu­ture, in con­trast to the stark warn­ings of con­tem­po­rary talk­ing heads. Oil is no longer the cheap, abun­dant en­ergy source it once was; it’s scarce and ex­pen­sive and, fur­ther­more, is mak­ing the West far too de­pen­dent on some un­sta­ble regimes in some un­sta­ble parts of the world. In ad­di­tion, it’s sug­gested, some of th­ese regimes have greatly over­es­ti­mated the size of their own oil re­serves.

That the film­mak­ers pre­dict fu­ture in­ter­na­tional con­flict over oil comes as no sur­prise; such con­flicts are al­ready with us. But the film goes fur­ther in as­sert­ing that un­less the present thirst for oil soon abates or other suit­able fuel sources are dis­cov­ered, the world as we know it will be changed be­yond recog­ni­tion.

In the not too dis­tant fu­ture, we’re told, air travel will be af­forded by only the very rich, and in count­less other ways we will have to live far sim­pler lives than we do to­day.

A gallery of in­ter­vie­wees, rep­re­sent­ing a variety of view­points, pro­vides a dole­ful com­men­tary sup­ported by well- cho­sen doc­u­men­tary footage. The prin­ci­pal mes­sage is sim­i­lar to the cli­mate change fore­cast: that mankind is de­stroy­ing the planet for short- term self­ish­ness and that no gov­ern­ment lead­ers are re­ally ad­dress­ing the prob­lem.

As An In­con­ve­nient Truth demon­strated, there is an au­di­ence will­ing to go to the cin­ema to face this kind of dooms­day ma­te­rial. It cer­tainly makes for a sober­ing trip to the movies.

In a flap: Julie Wal­ters plays an ec­cen­tric re­tired ac­tor who de­vel­ops a warm friend­ship with her as­sis­tant ( Ru­pert Grint) in Driv­ing Lessons

In­com­ing tide: A Crude Awak­en­ing: The Oil Crash por­trays a bleak fu­ture from cli­mate change

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