Driven to distraction
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