Driving Lessons (PG-13) (98 min.) - Driving Lessons belongs to that hardy niche of British comedies designed as star vehicles for distinguished actors (preferably Dames) whose assignment is to win awards by devouring the scenery. Julie Walters, who does the chomping in Driving Lessons, isn't yet a Dame like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. But the movie carries her a step in that direction.
She plays Evie Walton, a retired actor who has affixed a bogus title to her name and flaunts a disheveled grandiosity to go with it. Despite her background in Shakespeare and Chekhov, Dame Evie, as she calls herself, is known to the younger generation only from a trashy daytime soap opera called The Shipping Magnates.
Evie veers between imperiousness and wild eccentricity - with a liberal dose of fabrication.
Her personal assistant is Ben (Rupert Grint, the talented young actor who plays Harry Potter's sidekick Ron Weasley). He is a shy, carrot-topped youth from a strict Christian household. Ben dabbles in poetry and pines after a priggish Bible-spouting girl in his church.
Driving Lessons is the directorial debut of Jeremy Brock. It was inspired by Brock's teenage experience working one summer for Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
The dramatic core of the movie is the struggle for Ben's soul waged between two female monsters: one lovable, if impossible (Evie), and the other thoroughly detestable (Ben's holier-than-thou mother, Laura). Played by Laura Linney, Laura is treated with a loathing rarely seen in movies since the Freudian 1950s, when evil, castrating moms made convenient scapegoats.
Ben's father, Robert (Nicholas Farrell), is an ardent bird-watcher who delivers mealy-mouthed sermons and would rather warble birdcalls to his son than develop any meaningful communication. The mother, meanwhile, is having an affair with the handsome young man who plays Jesus in a church pageant she is overseeing.
It is through Evie that Ben learns to break his mother's rules. Although he hasn't earned a driver's license, Evie insists he be her chauffeur. Violating Laura's curfew, he takes Evie camping and later to a literary festival in Edinburgh. Their relationship morphs from embattled to mutually nurturing.
The screwball aging diva genre isn't the only formula guiding this stubbornly old-fashioned movie. Driving Lessons belongs to the silly feel-good mode of The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and dozens of other celebrations of Brits defying convention to become "free," whatever that means. Since any connections between Driving Lessons and the real world are tangential at best, it's a faux liberation, the easiest kind.