Friday, December 22, 2006

Driving Lessons

This is an odd little film about a young man named Ben (Rupert Grint) who takes a job working for a little old lady who used to be an actress (Julie Walters), doing odd jobs around the house - actually, sprawling compound might be a better description - and keeping her company. I say odd because it’s a character study that doesn’t quite take enough time to properly study its characters - or else has introduced too many characters for the amount of time it was intended to occupy.

Ben’s parents (Nicholas Farrell and Laura Linney) are church people, but of entirely different stripes - his father is a vicar who preaches that being a Christian is more about actions than words; and his mother is one of those Jesus Camp people who carry the hellfire and brimstone around with them on their persons in case of emergencies and generally give whichever flavor of religion they purport to practice a bad name. There is tension between the two, which affects their son, but the tension is revealed in small morsels over the dinner table, and is not especially engaging - it is vaguely illustrative rather than thought-provoking and, you know, interesting.

Ben makes sure the audience knows that all of this tension is very troubling to him by sporting a dark scowl on his face for most of the film - a scowl, I am sorry to say, which might just as well indicate that he is in dire need of a large dose of a quick-acting laxative. Rupert Grint simply isn’t great shakes in the acting department yet, but he sure tries hard.

Julie Walters, as Evie Walton, however, does a splendid job of playing a dotty old woman who is suffering from being a dotty old woman whose former career - which, it turns out, was never nearly as glamorous nor as successful as she wishes it might have been - is many years now in the past and whose days now consist mostly of roaming around her house and lamenting the passing of her glory years. There are various plot points thrown in at different times in the film that attempt to deepen her character, but since she seems to make some things up and tell the truth about other things, these extra bits wind up doing little to elucidate how her life has failed to materialize in quite the way she had hoped.

At bottom, Ben and Evie are lonely souls who need the kind of friends you don’t just go around making all the time - this is meant to brand them as unique individuals, and Walters wrings a fine performance out of the material and actually make Evie into something of a character, whereas Grint is quite a bit more wooden - almost as though he’s not entirely sure what to do when the script calls for him to be something other than a wizard mired in his more-famous best friend’s shadow.

Sweet. Bit of a ham-handed segue there - Grint and Walters are, of course, players in those popular Harry Potter movies; Grint plays Ron Weasley, and Walters plays his mother, Molly. That the two were cast for the parts in Driving Lessons based on this past history of working together is no happy accident, of course. Unfortunately, the novelty of the idea of getting two Harry Potter players to play characters other than the ones they play in the Potter pictures is not enough, in this case, to carry the film.

And yet...I didn’t hate the movie. I just don’t think it was put together as well as it might have been - and it was not nearly long enough. I wanted to hear a bit more from Ben’s father, and quite a lot more from Ben’s mother, not to mention more between Ben and Evie - more about life and how it is lived and what it means to those who live it - why these characters believe the things they believe and do the things they do.

This is director Jeremy Brock’s first time behind the camera, so that may explain some of it - but he wrote the picture, too, which has me a bit confounded. This is either not a very good script, or Brock has been betrayed by his film editor, Trevor Waite, whose previous editing experience is almost entirely in television, and who seems here to have slapped the scenes together willy-nilly. The part about Brock that confounds me is that he also wrote The Last King Of Scotland, which was not only a great movie, but an amazing adaptation - having read the novel and seen the movie, I can say with complete certainty that he did simply an amazing job with the Giles Foden novel, crafting a film version of the story that was considerably different, yet undeniably the same, as the story in the novel.

So what the hell happened here? Nerves brought on by writing his first original screenplay? (It’s not, technically, his first original screenplay - that would be Mrs. Brown, which was steeped in history. Driving Lessons, then, would be the first one he made up all on his own.) Perhaps he was rushed to get Ben’s scenes filmed while Grint had breaks from filming the Potter pictures? I don’t know. I don’t much care, either. People have all kinds of different ideas for movies, and make movies for all kinds of different reasons - to put two Potter players together in a non-Potter picture (yes, I am having fun with the alliteration) certainly doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I just don’t think it quite worked in this case.

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